MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Backpackers and international students are getting a raw deal in casual jobs in Australia, a survey found, confirming a long-held suspicion that employers were severely under paying workers who account for a 10th of all jobs in the country.
Most of the workers employed as fruit pickers to dish washers knew they were earning well below Australia’s minimum wage, the online survey of more than 4,000 people in 12 industries showed on Tuesday.
The people were on working-holiday or student visas and accounted for 11 percent of Australian jobs, mostly in restaurants and takeaways, petrol stations, car washes, farms, meatpacking, taxi-driving, factories, cleaning and child care.
“The study reveals that Australia has a large, silent under-class of migrant workers that are paid well below the minimum wage,” said Bassina Farbenblum, a senior law lecturer at the University of New South Wales, who ran the survey with researchers at the University of Technology Sydney.
The survey drew attention to the widespread nature of the problem, in the wake of wage scandals involving 7-Eleven and Caltex Australia (CTX.AX) in the past two years, which led the government to step up fines for employers who underpay staff.
It also comes amid broader concerns among policy makers about Australia’s tepid wages, with latest figures showing annual pay rates grew at a slow 2 percent in the third quarter.
In the minutes of its latest policy meeting, the Reserve Bank of Australia warned of “considerable uncertainty” about how quickly wages growth and inflation might pickup.
The survey found that workers from Asian countries, including China, Taiwan and Vietnam, were paid less than workers from North America, Ireland and the UK.
“There’s been a common misconception that they’re underpaid because they simply don’t know Australian labor laws, and that’s really not the case at all,” Farbenblum said.
Fruit and vegetable pickers were the worst paid. Growers rely on young people on working-holiday visas, who in turn can extend their visas to stay for a second year if they complete three months of work in the rural industry.
Around a third of fruit and vegetable pickers were paid A$10 ($7.50) an hour or less, and one out of seven were paid A$5 an hour or less, which was less than a quarter of the minimum wage for casual jobs at the time.
“It’s really incredibly egregious,” Farbenblum told Reuters.
($1 = 1.3263 Australian dollars)
Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Shri Navaratnam