The Guardian • Issue #1983

Young Workers’ Centre releases report into young migrant workers in the act

The Young Workers’ Centre, a Unions ACT initiative assisting young workers in Canberra, has released a report on the experiences of young migrant workers in the nation’s capital. The 2021 Report into Young Migrant Workers’ Experiences in ACT Workplaces has uncovered alarming statistics about the rate of wage theft and unsafe work. This echoes what has been known for years, insecure work coupled with a high cost of living and a work-dependent visa exposes young migrant workers to rampant exploitation by opportunistic wage thieves.

Data was collected from over 360 workers in the ACT through online surveys, as well as anecdotal evidence gathered through the Young Workers’ Centre’s community outreach programs. The survey sought to collect details about how young migrants experience work, as well as how this affects their finances and wellbeing.

A large proportion of the workers surveyed were under the age of eighteen (18.2 per cent) and most worked in service industries that have a high prevalence of casual work. 46.4 per cent of workers claimed to have been underpaid, with a further 17.9 per cent unsure of their pay and only 35.7 per cent receiving their full legal wage. When wages were paid, they were often cash-in-hand (15.7 per cent of workers) and without a payslip (57 per cent of workers), making it difficult for unions and regulators to identify wage theft.

Canberra is the most expensive city in Australia for rent, and young migrants are often far from the support of family. The high cost of living combined with the unlawfully low wages paid by employers often results in young migrant workers working long hours, even when their visa limits the number of hours they can work. Employers can then threaten workers with deportation for breaching their visa if they speak up. This effectively traps workers into exploitative work, where their pay may be reduced even further.

This use of blackmail means foreign workers are much less likely to report non-compliance than their Australian counterparts. 75 per cent of migrant workers said they would not feel comfortable discussing pay and conditions with their employer, for fear of losing their job.

Wage theft is not the only abuse suffered by Canberra’s foreign workers. Of those young migrant workers surveyed, 42.9 per cent had been injured at work, compared to 36.9 per cent for the general population. Foreign workers are less likely to report first aid systems being present in their workplace, suggesting workplaces with a high density of foreign workers have fewer safety processes in place. Racism and sexual harassment are also prevalent, with around a third reporting harassment from their manager or supervisor. As the perpetrators of abuse often have the power to fire, this mostly goes unreported.

While most abuses of foreign workers generally mirror the experiences of Australian workers, albeit, at higher rates, there are certain issues unique to visa-holders. Unpaid and illegal work is often marketed to international arrivals, particularly students, as “work experience,” even when no real training is provided. Foreign workers are misled about their rights and responsibilities in the visa system and are blackmailed into underpaid work and the already-low rates of labour law enforcement drop even lower.

It is clear that there is a crisis of exploitation and discrimination within the Australian labour market and our research shows that the ACT is not immune to this crisis. The Capital Territory needs to address this issue and provide support to the local migrant community to stand up against workplace exploitation.

The full report is available on the Young Workers’ Centre’s website: Young Migrant Workers’ Report

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