A nationwide study by researchers from UTS and UNSW involving 5000 international students has found the majority are experiencing serious wage theft. Despite efforts by the Fair Work Ombudsman and harsher penalties against employers being introduced over the past 4 years, the situation has not improved, say the authors. 


According to A/Prof Laurie Berg, “[international students] suffered in silence, often because of visa concerns or fear of job loss. Our findings confirm many who complained were in fact sacked.”

Some key findings from the report:

  • 77 percent were paid below the minimum casual hourly wage.
  • 26 percent earned just half the minimum casual hourly wage or less (a figure unchanged since the 2016 study).
  • The overwhelming majority of students who were underpaid knew the minimum wage (86%), but 62% believed they were at fault for the underpayment and had broken the law by accepting below minimum wages.
  • Students lacked an understanding of their rights in terms of casual loadings, penalty rates and other entitlements (75%) as well as their eligibility to claim the tax-free threshold (56%).
  • 38% reported that they did not seek information or help for a problem at work because they did not want ‘problems that might affect my visa’

The Migrant Worker Justice Initiative’s new report highlights some concrete solutions to improve outcomes for international students, who play such a vital function in essential industries such as cleaning, the care sector, and in our food supply chains. 

International students in the cleaning industry

In metropolitan areas, international students make up the bulk of the cleaning workforce. In CAF’s experience, in CBD office buildings and retail malls in our major cities, international students and other temporary migrants account for up to 85% of cleaners on-site. Wage theft and other forms of exploitation are a common experience for these workers. 

CAF was created with the chief objective of ending the exploitation of cleaners in Australia. CAF’s proactive approach to addressing the exploitation of migrant workers is helping to build a culture of compliance in the cleaning industry whereby underpayment risk is mitigated and where it does occur, it can be identified and resolved in a timely manner. We do this by: 

  • ensuring fair and transparent contract pricing, 
  • assisting cleaning contractors to remediate compliance issues and implement good practice HR systems, 
  • working with stakeholders to put in place supply chain oversight mechanisms, and 
  • supporting cleaners to speak up. 

The work being done by stakeholders at CAF-certified buildings is working:

  • Underpaid workers are getting backpaid
  • Payroll systems are being improved
  • Transparency and accountability are being adopted up and down the supply chain, and
  • Cleaners are being educated on their rights and encouraged and supported to speak up when they experience labour rights violations. 

CAF continues to expand these outcomes to more workers in the cleaning industry with the support of our partners AustralianSuper and United Workers Union, and our valued members who participate in CAF building certification.

The impact of COVID-19

The new report signals the worsening effect COVID-19 is expected to be having on the unacceptably high rates of wage theft among international students:

“The COVID-19 shutdown has created a humanitarian crisis among international students and other migrant workers in Australia,” A/Prof Farbenblum says. “Many have been unable to pay their rent and joined foodbank queues.”

In order to find out precisely how migrants are being affected by COVID-19, the report’s authors are conducting another nationwide survey capturing workers on other types of visas that will allow us to see what the impact of the pandemic is having, and will supply vital data about workers in different industries, including those working as cleaners. 

We encourage our stakeholders to share this survey with migrant workers in their operations and supply chains. The Temporary Migrants COVID Impact Survey can be found at www.mwji.org/covidsurvey. It closes on 20 July 2020.

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