Wage Theft in Silence: Why Migrant Workers Do Not Recover Their Unpaid Wages in Australia

61 Pages Posted: 30 Nov 2018 Last revised: 16 Jan 2019

See all articles by Bassina Farbenblum

Bassina Farbenblum

University of New South Wales (UNSW)

Laurie Berg

University of Technology Sydney, Faculty of Law

Date Written: October 1, 2018


Wage Theft in Silence presents findings from the National Temporary Migrant Work Survey -- the most comprehensive study of working conditions and access to justice among international students, backpackers and other temporary migrants in Australia. It draws on responses from 4,322 temporary migrants across 107 nationalities of every region in the world, working in a range of jobs throughout all Australian states and territories. The report reveals that although the majority of migrant workers were paid well below minimum wage in Australia, the overwhelming majority suffered in silence. Indeed, among international students and backpackers who acknowledged they had been underpaid, only 9% took any action to recover wages they were owed. The report considers the institutions from whom those 9% sought assistance, and whether they were able to recover their wages. These include the Fair Work Ombudsman, education providers and unions.

The report also presents data on the attitudes and experiences of the 91% of migrant workers who suffered wage theft in silence. Though it is often assumed that most underpaid migrant workers are not interested or willing to take action to get the wages they are owed, in fact well over half of survey participants indicated that they were open to trying to recover their wages. The report presents findings on the range of psychological, practical and other barriers that deterred them from doing so. It concludes that many of these barriers can be addressed through practical measures and policy reform, and it presents a range of recommendations to government, parliament, business and the international education sector to make reporting wage theft possible and rational for migrant workers. These include recommendations for a new or improved process for wage recovery, better resourced support services, and a firewall between the labour regulator and the immigration regulator that guarantees that migrants’ visas will not be jeopardised if they report wage theft.

Keywords: migrant worker, temporary migrant, migrant, immigrant, wage and hour, wage theft, underpayment, exploitation, access to justice, unions, Fair Work Ombudsman, international education, international students, Working Holiday Makers, backpackers, Australia

JEL Classification: K42, K37, K31, J15

Suggested Citation

Farbenblum, Bassina and Berg, Laurie, Wage Theft in Silence: Why Migrant Workers Do Not Recover Their Unpaid Wages in Australia (October 1, 2018). UNSW Law Research Paper No. 19-1, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3289002 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3289002

Bassina Farbenblum (Contact Author)

University of New South Wales (UNSW) ( email )

High St
Sydney, NSW 2052

Laurie Berg

University of Technology Sydney, Faculty of Law ( email )


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