Migrant workers recover over $1,000,000 in stolen wages

Since the Migrant Workers Centre launched in 2018, we’ve supported migrant workers to collectively recover over $1,000,000. This sum includes stolen wages, unpaid superannuation and entitlements, and WorkCover claims.

While this milestone is a testament to the power of collectively organising and unionising, MWC Director Matt Kunkel says “this milestone represents $1 million in wage theft that should never have happened. And it’s a drop in the ocean in terms of what migrant workers are experiencing in Australia.” 

Every cent recovered is a reflection not only of wage theft and exploitation that many workers are familiar with - but a reflection of a visa system that is stacked against migrants - that treats migrant workers as second class, expendable citizens, that limits work rights to the advantage of bosses, and that limits reporting avenues for workers.

But in spite of the challenges and need for systemic change, the hard fought wins by workers show change is possible. As 2020 draws to a close, we’re taking a look back at the faces behind the numbers. So what does $1,000,000 look like?

When Gimena from Argentina moved to a regional Victorian town to work as a graphic designer, she faced months of bullying by her employer and coworkers before being fired without warning.

Gimena had been living and working in Melbourne on a partner visa. When she came across a graphic designer job through an agency that assisted migrants and asylum seekers, she thought she’d landed secure employment and was embarking on the next stage of her career.

The role was in a regional Victorian town but she was happy to move, despite leaving behind her community and support network in Melbourne. Gimena says, “I came to the town, saw the place, did the interview  - it seemed alright.”

However, once she started the job, she realised she was trapped in a toxic work environment.“There was no way to do your work, they don’t talk to you, they ignore you… they start to bully you.” Gimena says, “I felt like my position wasn’t real… I got sick and I got depressed.”

Gimena suspects the employer and the agency were pursuing their own interests and received benefits in hiring her as a migrant. As a result, she felt like she was caught between an agency who abandoned her after placing her in the role and a toxic workplace that didn’t care about her at all. She says, “[The agency] pushed me to sign the paper… they bring me here, left me without any help in the middle of the town, I couldn’t go back to the city because all my stuff is here...” 

There was also the pressure of being a migrant worker in a small town where she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to get another job if she left her employer on bad terms.

It came to a head just before her trial period was supposed to end. Gimena recalls, “one day before the end of the third month, they fired me without excuse. They didn’t pay me [redundancies]. They called me one afternoon and told me ‘get out of here’, they were very rude.”

Around this time, Gimena found out about the Migrant workers Centre after attending our International Women’s Day event. Through this event, Gimena met Migrant Workers Centre organisers and told us about her experience at the workplace. Organisers then helped Gimena email the company to negotiate a redundancy payment.  For Gimena, who had suffered months of abusive interactions with her workplace, it was a relief to be able to pass on the negotiation process to organisers.

Gimena’s mistreatment at her workplace is sadly a common experience for many migrant workers. Dodgy employers frequently take advantage of a lack of familiarity with Australian workplace law to push workers onto substandard employment contracts with no protections. The mental health impacts of workplace bullying also has crippling impacts on many migrant workers who may already experience isolation in the community, and are pushed to the point where they suffer ongoing mental health consequences and can no longer work. In addition to helping workers fight wage theft, much of the Migrant Workers’ Centre’s work over the past two years has been supporting workers lodge WorkCover claims for physical and mental workplace injuries.

Iranian migrant worker Saeid fought for a WorkCover claim that was denied by his employer after he was injured at work.

Saeid was a site manager on a construction site but had been working under an ABN which is usually reserved for independent contractors. Unscrupulous employers often ask workers who are essentially employees to work under an ABN to avoid paying entitlements like sick leave, annual leave and redundancies.

In September 2019, he and his team were building a basement car park that was 5 metres below street level. He was walking up an incline on the site when he slipped and fell heavily and sustained injuries across his arms and chest.

The Migrant Workers Centre assisted Saeid with a Workcover claim. However, his employer refused to make the weekly payments for 4 months - leaving Saeid with heavily injured and with no income or no support. His employer also failed to pay for medical expenses as required.

With the Migrant Workers Centre’s support, Saeid and his employer went to conciliation and Saeid received over $17,000 that he was owed.

Saeid’s case shows that while there are processes for injured workers and systems for resolving disputes, it can nevertheless be challenging to hold employers accountable.

A huge percentage of workers who come to the Migrant Workers Centre for assistance are Working Holiday Makers. Despite making up only a small fraction of the workforce, WHMs are heavily over represented in wage theft cases. It’s a result of visa restrictions like the regional work requirements and the six month limit for staying with each employer that make it difficult for employees to fight exploitative bosses as they have no protections against unfair dismissals.

However, in spite of the additional barriers working holiday makers are subjected to, the wins the Migrant Workers Centre has seen over the seen cases over the years shows it is possible to fight for your rights even if you’re only in Australia for a short period of time.

Darren’s story from earlier in the year shows how migrant workers can fight the power imbalance with their employer by organising together and joining a union.

Like hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, Darren came to Australia on a working holiday visa. He responded to a job ad for a popular café in Melbourne’s CBD – advertised as full time and at the award rate. 

Darren had heard about Melbourne’s coffee culture and the job seemed promising.  However, he quickly realised things weren’t right when his boss didn’t pay him for his first five hour trial shift. From then on, he worked around sixty hours a week and was paid on average $13-$14 an hour with no penalty rates or sick leave. 

While Darren didn’t feel empowered to confront his boss immediately, he knew he wanted to fight back. He started using the Record My Hours app to log his hours and he spoke to other workers at the café. Darren explained, “When a new person started, I would pull them aside after their first trial shift – often they were already angry because they weren’t paid – and tell them I wanted to do something about our work situation, and asked if they would help.” He says, “I didn’t feel empowered as an individual but we felt stronger as a group.” 

Darren then discovered the Migrant Workers Centre and with support, he and his co-workers collectively demanded payment from his boss, and planned a protest action outside the café.
He also joined the United Workers Union. While Darren knew about unions, he says he hadn’t realised unions covered industries like hospitality in Australia.  The prospect of a protest outside the business was enough for his boss to agree to a $12,000 settlement.

Darren, Saeid and Gimena’s stories are a snapshot of the challenges migrant workers face but their wins also show what is achievable when migrants are empowered to fight for their rights.

The Migrant Workers’ Centre looks forward to continuing our work over the coming years supporting workers like Darren, Saeid and Gimena.