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Addressing Wage Theft: New Protections for Migrant Workers in Australia from 1 July

Living and working in a new country is challenging enough without the added burden of unpaid wages. This is the reality for many international students and migrant workers in Australia.

The recent report All Work, No Pay by the Migrant Justice Institute sheds light on the widespread underpayment across various industries and the hurdles migrant workers encounter in claiming their wages.

Below, we will take you through the findings of the report and the new protections being introduced to help migrant workers seek justice.

About the report

The Migrant Justice Institute conducted this report to highlight the widespread wage theft and exploitation faced by international students and migrant workers in Australia. Despite legal protections, many remain underpaid. The main method for these workers to claim unpaid wages is through the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFCOA) using the “small claims” process.

The small claims system was designed to make wage recovery in court more accessible and efficient. However, it is nearly impossible for most international students and migrant workers to file and pursue a claim without legal assistance. In 2022-23, only 137 small claims were filed. Meanwhile, an estimated 490,000 to 1.26 million workers were paid below the minimum wage. This shows the system’s limitations and the vulnerability of these workers.

The report offers several recommendations to improve the situation. These include increasing legal assistance, simplifying the claims process, ensuring payment, and introducing new support services. Examples of these services are a Wages and Superannuation Calculation Service and a duty lawyer service.

Why aren’t workers filing claims?

The report identifies several barriers that prevent migrant workers from seeking justice. Most migrant workers need legal help to file a claim, but this help is often unavailable. Without it, they face challenges in understanding their rights, calculating their owed wages and completing the necessary paperwork.

Even if a claim is filed, court procedures can be difficult to navigate without assistance, especially for those not fluent in English. Winning a court order doesn’t guarantee payment, as employers can become uncontactable, close their businesses or refuse to pay.

Additionally, there is a shortage of affordable legal services. Community Legal Centres and other support services can be underfunded and overwhelmed, leaving many workers without the help they need.

New visa protections in 2024 hope to bring change

There’s a silver lining: 45 per cent of migrant workers surveyed expressed willingness to try reclaiming their unpaid wages if the process were less daunting and more likely to succeed. With new visa protections being piloted in 2024, the risks of bringing claims are expected to decrease significantly.

Starting from 1 July 2024, the Albanese Government will be piloting the following protections aimed at reducing the fear and barriers preventing migrant workers from reporting exploitation:

  1. More protection against visa cancellation: Migrant workers will not have their visas cancelled if they report mistreatment or seek help, even if they have broken a work-related visa rule. This change aims to remove the fear of deportation, encouraging workers to speak up against exploitation.
  2. Workplace Justice visa: A new visa will allow temporary migrants to remain in Australia while they seek justice for workplace issues. This visa ensures that workers can legally stay in the country during the resolution of their claims, providing a unique vehicle for those who have no other option.
  3. Extended time without a sponsor: The time allowed for Temporary Skill Shortage visa holders to find a new sponsor has been increased from 60 days to 180 days. This change gives workers more time to escape exploitative environments and find new employment opportunities.

Steps to take if you’re being underpaid

If you suspect you’re being underpaid, follow these steps:

  1. Document everything: Record your hours and keep your pay slips. You should also put all communications with your employer about pay in writing.
  2. Know your rights: Check the minimum wage and entitlements for your job on the Fair Work Ombudsman website.
  3. Seek advice: Contact a community legal centre, migrant worker centre or your university’s student legal service. You can also reach out to the Fair Work Ombudsman for guidance.
  4. Raise the issue with your employer: Discuss your concerns with your employer. Sometimes, issues can be resolved through open communication.
  5. File a claim: If the matter isn’t resolved, you can report workplace exploitation to the Fair Work Ombudsman or Border Watch. You can report anonymously.

Remember, your visa is not at risk when you pursue your rightful wages.