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Standing up for migrant workers

Standing up for migrant workers

Migrant Workers Centre director Matt Kunkel (top) and MWC organisers

If you think MasterChef judge George Colombaris’s underpayment of hospitality workers is an isolated case, consider this: the Migrant Workers Centre has recouped nearly $200,000 in underpayments within its first year of operation.

Another half a million is being pursued through the courts.

Underpayment of 7-Eleven staff and restaurant workers in Colombaris’s MAdE company – which owned up to underpaying restaurant staff $7.8 million – has spotlighted the issue in recent years.

But underpayment is rife, particularly in the ‘3Ds’ industries – dangerous, dirty or demanding – in which large numbers of migrants are employed, Migrant Workers Centre Director Matt Kunkel says. When the centre has sent a letter to underpaying employers, most have simply handed over the money – indicating that for some employers, underpayment has become a business model.

‘Bad bosses have factored in “Maybe we will be caught” and if they do, all they’ve got to do is pay back what they stole,’ Matt said.

‘Nearly everyone we deal with, whether they present to us with this issue or not, we usually find underpayment and wage theft.

‘It might be that people are being paid under minimum wage and usually when people come to us, we also find issues to do with penalty rates and almost certainly anyone coming to us with wage theft issues is also having problems with superannuation – either non-payment or fraudulent recording of superannuation.’

That’s why the centre seeks to educate migrant workers on workplace rights by running workshops in community settings and encouraging them to join a union.

The centre employs organisers who speak Chinese, Tamil, Spanish and Korean, and recruitment of further staff members will add to the language mix.

The Migrant Workers Centre, which is based at the Victorian Trades Hall Council, conducts outreach, seeks to recover underpayments, campaigns for migrant workers’ rights and advocates to improve policy and law relating to migrant workers.

Migrants can be targeted by dodgy bosses because of visa restrictions, Matt said.

International students are only able to work up to 20 hours per week but if they are unable to live on this income, they are often forced into the informal economy where they are unlikely to complain about their wages or conditions.

‘We know that people in convenience stores or the back of kitchens are working 40, 50, 60 hours a week despite only having a 20 hour a week student visa. And we’ve seen wages as low as $9 an hour.

Try living on $9 an hour/20 hours a week – you just can’t do it,’ Matt explained.

Without pressure from workers and their unions, unscrupulous employers will continue to withhold payments from staff.

‘We want to organise workers, so they know their rights and are equipped with the skills to enforce them and know they have the support of the trade union movement to do that,’ Matt said.

An investigation into 7-Eleven stores by Four Corners and Fairfax Media found systemic underpayment of wages and doctoring of payroll records. The Fair Work Ombudsman has taken legal action against 11 7-Eleven operators since 2009.

In 2014, the Fair Work Ombudsman’s raid of 20 7-Eleven franchises across Australia found 60 per cent were underpaying wages. Under a 7-Eleven compensation scheme, more than $110 million has been paid to workers.

In April 2018 the Federal Circuit Court imposed penalties of more than $192,000 against two operators for underpaying their staff by more than $31,000 in 12 months.

Store employees – many of them young international students – were often being paid half, or less than half, the $24.50 award rate.

Some franchisees were paying their staff on international student visas the proper rate for the 20 hours they were able to work under their visa conditions but requiring them to work much longer hours. Others were paying their workers the award rate but forcing them to repay the franchisee in cash in order to reduce the hourly rate.

‘Our visa system is set up to create an underclass of workers who are easily exploitable and subject to fear of government action,’ Matt said.

Workers in Australia under a temporary skills shortage visa (formerly 457 visa) are also hamstrung to complain about their employer; if they lose their job, they have 60 days to find a new sponsor or they will have to leave the country.

Matt cites the case of a client who worked in a cafe for six months without payment under the promise of a job as a chef under a temporary skills shortage visa. The café hired the woman but asked her for tens of thousands of dollars to pay for the visa.

‘That’s not an isolated story.’

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