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Irish workers among those facing 'endemic wage theft' in Australia

The exploitation is “especially severe” in fruit-and-vegetable picking.

File photo.
File photo.
Image: Shutterstock/vikorn

BACKPACKERS AND INTERNATIONAL students working in Australia are subjected to “systemic wage theft”, with about one-third paid half the minimum wage, a study has found.

There are more than 900,000 temporary migrants such as backpackers in Australia, making up about 11% of the labour market.

Yet 30% of the 4,322 temporary migrants surveyed said they were paid about half the legal minimum wage for casual workers of Aus$22.13 an hour (€14.30) at the time of the survey in late 2016.

Almost half earned Aus$15 per hour or less, the “Wage Theft in Australia” report – covering 107 nationalities – found.

“One of the really striking findings was that 86% of international students and backpackers… perceive that everybody on their visa is being underpaid,” the study’s co-author Bassina Farbenblum of the University of New South Wales told AFP.

So there’s no point them leaving the job that they are in because they see that there is very little chance of them getting a better job.

The study showed that “wage theft is endemic” and also “widespread across numerous industries”.

It was particularly prevalent in food services and “especially severe” in fruit-and-vegetable picking.

Katy Harrison from Galway, who is currently working and travelling in Australia, explained to that because many of the farms pay per piece of fruit picked people can end up losing money by going to work.

“This is where people get exploited because some people aren’t very fast at the beginning and end up coming out in a loss after their day’s work.

“It can cost them $15 to get to work but they only earn $10,” Harrison said.

Katy, who worked on a winery in Victoria and in a cotton factory in New South Wales, said that some the farmers who do pay the minimum wage manage to extract that cash from their employees by charging exorbitant rates for accommodation.

“What a lot of farmers will do is pay minimum wage but then charge an arm and a leg for accommodation, which is always absolutely shocking,” she explained.

This makes it look like the worker is getting minimum wage on the payslip but then they give almost all of it back to the farmer for accommodation.

The Department of Foreign Affairs advised Irish people to check that they will be paid at the appropriate level and that they will receive a weekly payslip and a payment summary at the end of their work period.

“Citizens should remember, regardless of their visa status, that they are entitled to report any mistreatment to the local police and the Fair Work Ombudsman,” the department said.

Australia’s Employment Minister Michaelia Cash echoed this statement and said the government has made reforms since the survey was carried out.

“The government has made several important reforms to protect these workers since the survey was conducted,” she said in a statement. Reforms included more resources for the ombudsman to tackle exploitation cases.

While at least one-fifth of those surveyed from every nationality experienced “extremely poor” wage rates of Aus$12 per hour or less, visitors from Asian countries were the most affected.

Around three-quarters of Chinese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese participants earned Aus$17 per hour or less, compared with 35-41 percent of Irish, American and British participants.

© – AFP, 2017 with reporting by Céimin Burke

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