Alejandro, a 24-year-old UTS student from Chile, arrived in Australia in 2015. Since then, like many international students, he’s worked a series of restaurant jobs to support himself while he studies.
And, like many international students, Alejandro has also been the victim of wage theft in Australia’s hospitality industry.
In May 2017, Alejandro accepted a job as kitchenhand at a restaurant in Sydney. According to the award wage, he should have been paid $23.41 per hour but instead received a flat rate of $18 an hour – weekdays and weekends. He worked mostly evening shifts from 6pm to 11pm that fitted in with his university schedule. Some nights he didn’t leave the restaurant until 1am but was only ever paid for his rostered five-hour shift.
The boss, he says, was demanding and had a short temper. He was often verbally abusive. “The environment was really bad. I never really liked it from the beginning,” says Alejandro.
After three months, Alejandro decided to quit his job but when he told his boss he was leaving, his boss refused to pay him his wages for his final week.
Among international students, 25 per cent earned $12 per hour or less and 43 per cent earned $15 or less in their lowest paid job
Alejandro’s story is common. In 2015, Four Corners revealed the gross underpayment of migrant workers who were being routinely abused, harassed and assaulted on Australian farms and factories. Another 2015 Four Corners investigation, this time with Fairfax Media, found “systemic underpayment of wages” at 7-Eleven stores across the country.
It was media reports like this that prompted two academics, Laurie Berg, a Senior Lecturer in Law at UTS, and Bassina Farbenblum, a Senior Lecturer in Law at UNSW Sydney, to conduct a comprehensive survey of temporary migrant workers to gauge the extent of wage theft in Australia.
“We heard a lot of anecdotal reports about exploitation, but no one had really known how far the exploitation goes, partly because international students and backpackers are often unwilling to come forward and speak publicly about what’s happened to them,” says Berg.
The survey’s findings, based on the responses of almost 4500 temporary migrants from 107 countries in every region in the world, who worked in a range of jobs in all states and territories, were published in a report, Wage Theft in Australia: Findings of the National Temporary Migrant Work Survey. It found that exploitation of temporary migrant workers in Australia is endemic.
“We discovered that exploitation is extremely widespread and in many cases is extremely severe,” says Berg. Thirty per cent of all respondents earned less than $12 an hour. Among international students, 25 per cent earned $12 per hour or less and 43 per cent earned $15 or less in their lowest paid job.
“It deprives hundreds of thousands of temporary workers of millions of dollars that are rightfully theirs,” says Berg.
One of the worst offenders for wage theft is the food services industry. Two in five respondents had their lowest paid job in a restaurant, café, or takeaway store. “Every major nationality of international students had a strong incidence of working in hospitality,” says Berg. “It’s not just an issue for one nationality – it’s across the board.”
Why students stay in bad jobs
There are many reasons why a temporary migrant worker might not want to report a boss who has underpaid them – the fear of losing a visa or the threat of retaliation high among them.
“The prospect of visa cancellation is particularly significant for students because they have put so much financial and social investment in their time here in Australia and their study,” says Berg. “The hopes and dreams of their families back home are resting on them.”
There is a misconception, she says, that international students stay in these jobs because they don’t know what their rights are. “We found that was not the case…even among those who were earning $15 or less, which is very much illegal, even among them, 75 per cent knew that the minimum wage was higher. It is not lack of knowledge that’s keeping them there.”
Low paid jobs are often the only option for international students whose skills or qualifications aren’t recognised in Australia
Most international student visas permit them to work 40 hours a fortnight, but many are paid cash-in-hand, which allows them to work extra hours. “Fees for international students at universities and private colleges are extremely high and in many areas of Australia, certainly in Sydney and Melbourne and other capital cities, cost of living is very high, so they feel an enormous amount of pressure to work more than 40 hours a fortnight,” says Berg.
Low paid jobs are often the only option for international students whose skills or qualifications aren’t recognised in Australia. International students are an easy source of cheap labour for employers – they congregate around universities, especially in Sydney, where they don’t qualify for travel concessions. “Geographic concentration is a big part of it,” says Berg.
And when they look around, they see that their peers are in the same boat. “Among students, 86 per cent said they think many, most or all other international students are earning less than the minimum wage,” she says. “They don’t see there’s a chance of getting a better paid job. They see that there is a different labour market, a different set of jobs that are open to them that are not paying lawful wages. Our findings on wage rates shows that perception is true.”
Many café and restaurant owners “assume they are not going to be found and that the penalties aren’t great,” says Berg, who believes that criminalising wage theft and providing more resources for enforcement would help stamp out the practice in the hospitality industry.
Berg believes universities and colleges have a role to play in supporting students, who place a lot of trust in their places of study. These institutions are “well-placed to provide more detailed information to students about their rights and also where to go when they need help,” she says.
After seeking advice from his university’s legal service, Alejandro threatened his former boss with legal action unless he paid him his outstanding wages. The restaurant owner handed over half the cash owed, which Alejandro accepted, disappointed with the outcome but happy to walk away with something.
Alejandro has since found a new job at a restaurant in Sydney’s inner-west. He’s still underpaid – the wage is $19 an hour, plus tips – but he doesn’t care. “It’s a family restaurant, the boss is nice, and the co-workers are polite,” he says. “It’s close to my house and I can take food home.”
Nicola Heath is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @nicoheath.
Find out your rights and responsibilities as international students at SBS Learn.
Four-part series Dead Lucky premieres Wednesday 25 July, 9.30pm on SBS and will also available on SBS On Demand.