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Backpackers Get Paid Half the Minimum Wage in Australia

A landmark new report shows what many of us quietly already knew: Australia exploits its overseas workers.

by Katherine Gillespie
20 November 2017, 10:57pm

Image via Shutterstock

Pretty sweet deal, being a backpacker in Australia. Not only do you get to be one of those homesick-looking travellers playing hacky sack in front of their hostel in Federation Square, but the cost of alcohol is triple what you’re used to back home, and the locals are racist as hell. Also, you’re routinely ripped off by employers who pay you $5 an hour to pick fruit in the 40 degree heat.

New research from the University of New South Wales confirms what (let's be honest) many of us already knew—outlining how migrant workers are ripped off on a mass scale throughout Australia. Surveying 4,322 legal overseas workers from 107 countries who are either travelling or studying here, the report found almost half of them are being paid $15 or less per hour, far below the minimum wage for a casual worker ($22.13 per hour). Almost a third of survey participants reported earning $12 or less per hour.

Race seems to play a role as well. Chinese, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese workers were more likely to be paid under the table than North American and British workers.

So, how do employers skirt around the system? For one thing, many of these workers—around 44 percent—are paid in cash. Most of them are in casual hospitality roles. Many local Australian workers have experienced firsthand how easy it is for employees to pay their workers illegally and still keep everything "legit." Particularly because the onus is on the employee to go through a lengthy appeal process through the Fair Work Ombudsman, in order to get compensated for illegal pay. According to this new report, many migrant workers would feel too disenfranchised to take these steps.

"We found the overwhelming majority of international students and backpackers are aware they are being underpaid. However, they believe few people on their visa expect to receive the legal minimum wage," the survey’s co-lead author Bassina Farbenblum said in an accompanying press release.

The academics behind the survey hope it will lead to policy change.

“For government, the findings demand examination of levels of resourcing required to address the scale of non-compliance and consideration of specialised programs and infrastructure to prevent and remedy wage theft and where the levers of reform may be found,” the report reads.

"At the least, this report highlights the responsibilities of employers, franchisors and businesses at the peak of supply chains to employ effective methods to detect wage theft in the knowledge that it is widespread.”

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