Foreign Workers Being Paid Less Because Of ‘Poor’ English

Workers who struggle with English and understanding our labour laws are falling victim to exploitation.

John* wakes up at 5.45am every day, travels an hour to get to work and spends over eight hours doing 'exhausting' manual labour. He is paid $20 an hour,  far below the minimum award wage of $26.14 per hour.

John is 23, from Argentina and receives more than $5 an hour less than his co-workers because of his “poor English”.

“It’s very hard work. I work with the shovel, digging holes, moving stones and wood with a lot of weight on my body. I asked my boss if he could give me an increase since I end up very exhausted and really need the money. He told me he could not give me the raise because I do not speak English well,” John said.

According to a report by the Migrant Workers Justice Initiative, Australia’s large silent underclass of foreign workers are paid far below the minimum wage in at least 12 main industries.

The report discovered one-third of backpackers and international students earned $12 an hour or less, half the minimum wage in most casual jobs.

The Fair Work Ombudsman said while migrant workers make up six percent of the Australian workforce, this group accounted for 20 percent of all formal disputes completed by the Fair Work Ombudsman in 2017-18.

Last financial year, over 60 percent of the Fair Work Ombudsman’s court actions alleged serious breaches of workplace laws by businesses employing migrant workers.

According to the Migrant Workers Centre, there is actually no difference between good and poor English skills when it comes to wage theft or underpayment.

The organisation told 10 Daily that bosses believe they can get away with exploitative practices because of migrants' visa status and the lack of safeguards in place for ripping off migrant workers.

“Repercussions for ripping off workers are minimum. In many cases, workers do not know who to turn to and just give up. We record an employer’s reply to one South Korean Working Holidaymaker ‘you are in Australia, not in Korea, do you think you are a citizen? You’re just a backpacker’," a spokesperson for the centre said.

Daniel*, a 27-year-old Colombian student, said when he first arrived in Australia last year he was paid just $11 an hour for working at a Sydney restaurant.

This is less than half the required minimum wage of $23.66 for waiters set out by the Restaurant Industry Award 2010.

“I thought it was normal then I asked my roommates and they told me it was illegal and I was getting ripped off,” he said.

The student said another Colombian waitress at the restaurant was being paid just $10 an hour by the Australian owner.

When approached for comment a Fair Work Ombudsman spokesperson told 10 Daily Visa holders are one of the most vulnerable worker groups and may not seek help because of language and cultural barriers.

This along with concerns about visa status or limited awareness of their workplace rights makes them easy prey for business owners.

In the last financial year, the Ombudsmen secured  $4.8 million in penalties for decisions involving visa workers in 2017-18.

*Names have been changed.

Fair Work advises workers to contact them directly through their website for information and advice about payment. An interpreter service is also available by calling 13 14 50.