More than 500 international students working in Australia – from 103 nationalities and all levels of education – participated in the survey.
Co-author of ‘International Students and Wage Theft in Australia’, Laurie Berg, said the report found the vast majority of international students were victims of wage theft, with three in four earning below the minimum casual wage and half were paid in cash.
Ms Berg said governments had been “tinkering around the edges” of protecting international students before COVID-19 but that appeared to have “dropped off the radar” in recent months.
The report recommends abolishing a cap on working hours and creating an “absolute firewall” between the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Department of Home Affairs to prevent the two agencies sharing information.
Ms Berg said potential visa issues might stop migrant workers from seeking help for wage theft.
Maurice Blackburn employment law senior associate, Patrick Turner, said the report showed international students were being routinely exploited by “unscrupulous employers” and many were too afraid to speak up – particularly since the COVID-19 crisis had pushed up unemployment.
“This report paints a damning picture of the systemic wage theft being experienced by too many migrant workers in Australia,” he said.
Mr Turner said the criminalisation of wage theft in Victoria and Queensland was a good start but said more needed to be done.
“Too often in these cases the balance is tipped in favour of the employer responsible for perpetrating the wage theft, and it can be a very difficult process for a worker to bring a claim for underpayment in seeking to get back wages they are owed,” he said.
Mr Turner urged the federal government to take note of the recommendations to provide a more effective wage recovery mechanism for underpaid migrant workers and adopt wider regulatory reforms.
“Governments must introduce targeted campaigns to deliver clear information to international students, so they know their legal and workplace rights,” he said.
“Importantly, international students need to be reassured by government that they will not face adverse consequences if they speak up about workplace exploitation.
“Migration has been the bedrock of Australia’s prosperity, but we cannot allow this to be built off the back of exploitation of vulnerable migrants,” he said.