Migrant workers failing to recover unpaid wages

Unpaid migrant workers struggling to recover wages - Newsreel
Migrant workers in Australia are struggling to take action to recover unpaid wages. | Photo: Juan Estey

Migrant workers are struggling to recover unpaid wages due to court process complexity and lack of affordable legal support.

The Migrant Justice Institute (MJI) said, despite widespread underpayment, only 137 workers sought redress in court in 2022-23.

“Findings from the Migrant Justice Institute‘s survey also bear this out: of 4000 migrant workers, over half were underpaid,” the MJI said in statement. “Most knew this, but nine in 10 did nothing. One went to court – but recovered none of their wages.”

The MJI report, All Work, No Pay, said the “small claims” court process was intended to be simple and accessible.

In reality, it was virtually impossible for many workers to file and pursue a small claim without legal support and affordable legal support was “extremely limited”.

The report, endorsed by 24 legal service providers and community and anti-trafficking organisations, called for:

  • More accessible, simpler court processes
  • A new pathway for wage claims at the Fair Work Commission, and potentially establishment of a new Fair Work Court
  • More funding for legal assistance
  • A new government guarantee scheme so workers get paid where the employer disappears, liquidates or refuses to pay

Report co-author Fiona Yeh said a worker’s right to be paid correctly under the law was “illusory” if they could not enforce that right in court.

“This is critical to break the cycle of business impunity for exploitation,” she said.

Another co-author Associate Professor Bassina Farbenblum said for most migrant workers in Australia, the risks and costs of making a wage claim outweighed the “slight prospect” of success.

“Existing legal processes are complex and inaccessible,” she said. “This incentivises employers to underpay their workers, assuming that workers will never hold them to account.”