Wage theft 'endemic' among exploited backpackers in Australia

Jonathan Pearlman
Backpackers taking jobs in the fruit picking industry typically receive less than minimum wage - Getty Images Contributor

Backpackers and international students in Australia are being drastically underpaid and subject to “endemic” exploitation, according to a landmark study which found that about two-thirds of holidaymakers received less than the minimum wage.

The study, based on a survey of 4,322 working visitors to Australia, found that the jobs least likely to be properly paid were waiters, kitchen hands, farm workers, fruit pickers and cleaners. It found 32 per cent of backpackers were paid less than $AU12 (£6.90) an hour, compared with a minimum rate for casuals of about $AU22  (£12.60).

“The study confirms that wage theft is endemic among international students, backpackers and other temporary migrants in Australia,” says the study. “For a substantial number of temporary migrants, it is also severe.”

The study, by researchers at the University of New South Wales and the University of Technology Sydney,  follows numerous reports of slave-like treatment of temporary workers in Australia, many of whom fear a backlash if they complain. A national inquiry last year found that some backpackers had been sexually harassed or were forced to do difficult physical labour in scorching temperatures without being paid properly, if at all.

The latest study surveyed visitors from 107 countries, with 15 per cent from China, eight per cent from South Korea and six per cent each from Britain and Germany.

More than 200,000 backpackers from specified countries come to Australia each year on working holiday visas, which allow some visitors to stay for a second year if they work for 88 days on a farm. The scheme is designed to help local farmers secure a steady flow of workers during peak picking seasons.

A report last year found that Britain was the top-ranked source country for such working holidays, with more than 34,000 Britons arriving for a first year and more than 8,000 extending their stay following a stint on a farm.

But the programme is ripe for exploitation, leaving vulnerable young travellers working in remote locations.

Laurent Van Eesbeeck, a Belgian backpacker who recently worked on farms in the state of Queensland, said some of the conditions he endured amounted to “modern slavery”.

"I remember on a cherry tomato farm, I was completely bullied by the supervisor and I was completely underpaid," he told SBS World News.

"I think my first job, I got $AUS10 (£5.70) for two or three hours' work. When I went picking strawberries, I think I averaged $AUS60 (£34.30)-a-day before tax for eight hours of hard work under the sun."

The study found that 78 per cent of backpackers knew they were being paid less than the minimum wage but many believed that it was unlikely they would be able to find a job with full pay.

It found that some visitors were subject to criminal exploitation, with about three per cent reporting that their passport was confiscated by their employer and four per cent were required to pay money back to their boss after receiving their wages.

The mother of Mia Ayliffe-Chung, a 20-year-old British backpacker who was brutally murdered by a crazed fellow backpacker at a hostel in 2016, has urged Australian authorities to adequately oversee the farm stay scheme.

"I assumed it would be a government-run system," Rosie Ayliffe told ABC News earlier this year. "I assumed that the young people would be registered and the farms accredited."

The study’s authors,  Laurie Berg  and Bassina Farbenblum, said the “bleak” revelations showed authorities need to urgently oversee workplace conditions, noting that the large-scale exploitation may be driving down wages across the country.

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