Migrant and hospitality workers continue to be subjected to wage theft and underpayment. HRM investigates some recent shocking examples.
Wage theft and underpayment in the hospitality industry, and slave-like conditions for migrant workers are the latest workplace relations scandals to rock Australia.
In November last year, the death of Belgian national Olivier Caramin while pumpkin picking in the 35 degree Queensland heat, has further highlighted the exploitation migrant workers are subjected to. Caramin was reportedly forced to carry on picking by farmers in conditions that did not provide any shade, despite showing signs of ill health.
Previous reports have detailed incidents of migrant workers experiencing sexual harassment and assault, poor living conditions, financial exploitation and flagrant breaches of workplace safety laws.
Caramin was working under the 88-day law program where migrant workers must complete farm work for a designated period in order to extend their working holiday visa. According to the Australian Workers’ Union, it is the incentive basis of the 88-day law program which leaves them particularly vulnerable.
“Because the backpackers’ top priority is to get their paperwork signed, they are likely to put up with illegal wages and poor conditions,” says Shane Roulstone, the union’s national organiser.
Contributing to the problem is that migrant workers and backpackers often stay silent for fear of retribution in the form of a revoked visa or lost job. But this is not the case, according to the Fair Work Ombudsman.
“It’s unlawful for an employer to threaten a worker and say that their hours or their job or their visa status is under threat if that worker were to come forward to us with any information or concerns,” says Fair Work Ombudsman director Mark Lee.
Lee says that in fact, exploited workers coming forward is the best way to turn the situation around.
“Often there will be a backpacker working on one property and talking about a bad experience at a property they’d worked on previously to other backpackers and to the people they’re now working for,” he says.
“When those stories are being told, we want the people who are hearing them to come forward and give us a tip-off. That’s what really helps us to weed out the bad guys and scumbags that are out there.”
Fighting wage theft
In recent months there have been reports of rampant superannuation wage theft, underpayment and harassment in the Australian hospitality industry. A telling example is the case of an Italian chef on a 457 skilled worker visa at Sydney cafe Bar Coluzzi who was forced to work 54 hours per week while on a 40 hour per week contract. The chef was also later told she would have to repay a portion of her wages to cover tax and super.
Research conducted by United Voice in 2017 found that of the 624 hospitality workers surveyed, 76 per cent of the businesses they worked for were underpaying staff.
Scandals like these are coming to light, however, and action taken. In relation to the Bar Coluzzi case, the owner was fined nearly $100,000.
In other developments in the hospitality sphere, an online union called Hospo Voice, backed by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, has been created to provide support to workers in the hospitality industry amid repeated claims of exploitation and wage theft. Given the nature of the industry – that it is transient and frequented by migrant workers – it’s often difficult for unions to track and manage wage theft.
Hospo Voice is being piloted in Victoria, with plans to extend the online union to service the whole country. Among the digital tools provided is a tracking tool to demonstrate hours worked, a wage calculator so ensure fair pay and a diary in which to note incidents of bullying and harassment.
“Endemic wage theft and sexual harassment have prompted hospitality workers from bars, cafes and restaurants to come together and fight to change their industry,” says United Voice.
Stay up to date on the legislative and regulatory changes that influence your organisation’s risks, rights and responsibilities with the AHRI short course ‘Managing the legal issues across the employment life cycle’.