Policy makers in employment and industrial relations may be in denial about rates of underpayment amongst new workers, especially student visa workers and youth. Research with student visa holders points to widespread underpayment. Helping these workers to ‘move on’ to a fair workplace could be a practical strategy to reduce exploitation.
Thorough research by Dr Stephen Clibborn, Associate Lecturer in The University of Sydney Business School’s Discipline of Work and Organisational Studies found widespread underpayment amongst students with visas. His survey found that 60% of working students were paid below legal minimums. He concludes that “Australia’s 400,000plus international student guests are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers as they are often young, inexperienced, away from support networks, financially insecure and unaware of employment rights and enforcement institutions.”
A joint Fairfax ABC investigation into students working for 7-Eleven convenience stores by The Age’s Adele Ferguson pointed to widespread and systematic underpayment. Leaked company reports suggest that up to two-thirds of stores are paying workers as little as $10 per hour. In what is being dubbed the ‘half-pay scam’, staff were allegedly paid for only half the hours they work, with time sheets fudged to record hours that met visa limits.
Working with Chinese speaking journalism students, Edunity interviewed a range of current student visa holders about their experiences in Australia, including safety, accommodation and employment. The interviews showed an understanding of minimum wages but an acceptance that most first jobs involved below legal pay. The respondents knew it wasn’t right but felt they had to start somewhere, but hoped and eventually got employment at proper rates. Then the properly paid jobs in respectful workplaces were highly valued.
Other work by Edunity suggests that young workers, especially those desperate for first jobs are at risk of underpayment and even no payment as unpaid interns or trial workers.
Move on to a fair deal
Policy makers should explore ways to support and motivate underpaid workers to move on to a fair deal – quickly and confidently.
Use social – reach out with stories of underpaid people moving on to fair wages, emphasizing the friendlier atmosphere of workplaces that play by the rules
Show how to recover lost wages – step by step instructions to recover of lost wages and benefits after moving on.
Act now to avoid reputation damage – the education industry is important to Australia and negative work experiences are a significant threat to our reputation as a destination of first choice for study. Policy makers should address ’employment risk’ alongside already identified concerns like safety, accommodation and language.
Greg Day is a journalist and communications consultant in social issues, including the future of work and grassroot responses to technology disruption.