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Darren's story: recovering stolen wages as a backpacker

How did Darren, a backpacker from Taiwan, organise his workplace and recover $12,000 in stolen wages?

Darren knew from day one that his boss was underpaying him, but it wasn’t until he collectively took action with his co-workers that they got back $12,000 in stolen wages.

Like hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, Darren came to Australia on a working holiday visa. He responded to 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.

One of the barriers migrant workers face is a lack of information about workplace rights, but Darren says often they know their rights but aren’t supported to enforce them. This café had previously been investigated by the Fair Work Ombudsman but without any outcomes for the workers.

Darren felt angry after his unpaid shift and resolved to report his boss, but it was a difficult step to take. “People often don’t want to cause problems because their boss is nice,” he says. He was also worried because their wages were paid after 2 weeks and he was afraid of losing pay for over a hundred hours of work if he confronted his boss.

However, he started using the Record My Hours app to log his hours which also tracked and proved he was at the worksite. He spoke to other workers at the café who knew they were being ripped off. 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.”

“I didn’t feel empowered as an individual but we felt stronger as a group.”

Darren’s boss usually hired backpackers, but Darren found an advantage to this. He says, “it was easy to connect with the other workers because they were also Taiwanese” – reflecting the important role of community and cultural connections in fighting worker exploitation.

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 – one of the largest unions in Australia with over 150,000 members in forty-five industries. 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 has now left the café, and his advice to other workers in the same situation is “You have to speak up. If you say something, it might help but if you don’t say anything it will definitely not get better.”

If you’re in a similar situation to Darren, the Migrant Workers Centre can help you. Send us an email today at [email protected]

[Quotes from Darren have been translated from Chinese]

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