Job ads targeting migrants overwhelmingly offering below the minimum wage
Almost nine in 10 job ads written in foreign languages and targeting migrant workers are offering below the award rate, according to unions and researchers, which say it represents an alarming spike in attempted illegal exploitation during the pandemic.
Unions NSW conducted a survey of 3,000 job ads in languages such as Chinese and Spanish and found 88 per cent were advertising illegal pay rates, with the construction and cleaning industries the worst offenders.
The survey shows the rate of job ads offering illegal pay rates has increased more than 14 per cent during the coronavirus pandemic, during which time the body meant to help resolve such issues, the Fair Work Ombudsman, has cut back on dispute resolution and stopped all in-person inspections of businesses.
Chilean student Anna, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is one of more than a million migrant workers in Australia, a group Unions NSW says is treated like a “second-tier workforce” as a result of intentional exploitation by Australian employers.
The 30-year-old, who has two years of professional cleaning experience, was recently looking for work on online marketplace Gumtree while she studied in Sydney.
“I saw this advertisement that this guy was looking for experienced people,” she said.
“He called straight away pretty much and asked me to do a trial the next day.”
The award wage for a casually employed level two cleaner is $27.40 an hour but Anna said the man, who owns a commercial cleaning company with staff in several capital cities, offered to pay her $20 an hour.
“I said I wouldn’t accept that, because that is too low if I have two years of experience,” she said.
She eventually accepted his offer of $25 an hour, which was still underpayment.
Workers can fear pursuing complaints because of visa conditions
Migrants on student visas like Anna are only allowed to work 20 hours a week while their education is in session. But Anna said the cleaning company owner asked her to work more hours off the books and she agreed.
“He offered to pay me the first 20 hours with taxes and the rest would be in cash,” she said.
“He paid me just the first 20 hours, but the rest — I never saw the money.
“I think he is actively looking for people to work for free, hold them for a while and — when people realise he is not paying — they just leave and he will post [the job ad] again.”
Anna has contacted the Fair Work Ombudsman but because the ombudsman cannot guarantee her visa status will not be at risk if she goes ahead with her complaint, she is too scared to proceed for fear of being kicked out of the country.
Construction the worst industry for exploitative ads
Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey said the survey of ads, commissioned by the union, found construction was the worst industry for migrant wage theft, with 97.3 per cent jobs advertised paying below the minimum wage.
It was followed by cleaning at 91.8 per cent, hair and beauty at 87.9 per cent, fast food at 87.5 per cent, retail at 87. 1 per cent, hospitality at 87 per cent and transport at 66.7 per cent.
“What we’ve got now in this country is the industrial relations system merging with the immigration system,” Mr Morey said.
“We have more than a million people who are on some form of migrant visa and during COVID a number of bosses have taken the option to exploit migrants further, and so in this country we now have a second-tier workforce who are now unable to enforce their industrial rights.”
In a statement to the AM, a spokeswoman for the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) confirmed it stopped all inspections of businesses during the pandemic and undertook only “desk-based” work.
But the spokeswoman said the FWO started litigation on behalf of 24 visa holders last financial year.
“We also secured nearly $3 million in court-awarded penalties through litigations involving visa holders,” the spokeswoman said.
“This continues a trend of litigating a high proportion of matters involving visa holders — much higher than the proportion they make up of the broader workforce.”
Workplace rights expert, University of Sydney associate professor Chris F. Wright, said 24 was a tiny fraction of the number of people being exploited, and the Unions NSW report showed Australia’s effort to contain work exploitation was not enough.
“This is a scandal,” he said.
“Previous research done on this issue indicates a very high proportion of workers on temporary visas in Australia are being paid below the minimum wage and by ‘very high proportion’, I mean the majority.”
He said the Fair Work Ombudsman did a “good job” with the limited resources it had, but the restricted access of unions to workplaces also contributed to the high rate of migrant exploitation.
He said changes introduced to Federal Parliament in last week’s industrial relations reform bill would benefit migrant workers.
A spokesman for the Industrial Relations Minister, Christian Porter said: “The legislation creates a new criminal penalty which carries a jail term of up to four years and fines of up to $5.5 million for the most egregious forms of deliberate and systemic underpayments.”
“Civil penalties for underpayments will also increase by 50 per cent and will include new two or three times the “benefit obtained” maximum penalties for corporate non-compliance that does not meet the criminal threshold,” the spokesman said.