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ABC News
ABC News
Isobel Roe

Unions NSW survey of 7,000 foreign language job ads finds more than half offer illegal rates of pay

Sarah* moved to Australia from the Philippines with the promise of a massage therapy job in Canberra, so she could send money home to her family.

Instead, she found herself sleeping in a room with eight co-workers, banned from socialising and made to work 12-hour days, six days a week for about $10 an hour.

Sarah was exploited for four years before she escaped her employer and is one of thousands of migrant workers in Australia who are accepting jobs below the minimum legal rate.

Unions NSW has surveyed 7,000 job advertisements in foreign languages across more than 10 notorious industries and found 60 per cent are offering below the legal rate of pay.

The report being launched on Monday by Federal Immigration Minister Andrew Giles found the ads spruiking illegally low pay rates were most commonly in Chinese followed by Japanese, Vietnamese, Spanish and Portuguese.

The retail industry was the worst offender, with more than 84 per cent of foreign language ads surveyed offering below the award, followed by cleaning, transport, building and construction, hospitality and hair and beauty.

In the horticulture industry, where laws were introduced in April enforcing a minimum wage, Unions NSW found the number of job ads advertising an hourly rate has improved, from just 12 per cent to 60 per cent.

Unions NSW said underpayment of migrant workers had become a "business model" in Australia and the Fair Work Ombudsman was not well resourced enough to handle it.

Sarah, who does not want to be identified out of fear of her former boss, was owed $24.66 an hour under the Hair and Beauty Industry Award.

As a stranger to Australia's laws, she had no idea she was being underpaid by $14 an hour until a co-worker escaped and alerted unions to their conditions.

"We didn't know anything because we were not allowed to talk to other people," she said.

She said quitting and getting another job was not an option when her temporary visa was tied to her employer.

"All the pressure that you need to do your best, and if not then you're going to be sent back to the Philippines."

Sarah's case was so extreme it attracted Ministerial intervention, and she has been granted permanent residency in Australia.

The Unions NSW survey provides examples of job advertisements in hospitality offering $15 and $17 an hour, when the award for a level one food and beverage attendant is $21.97.

It also has examples of ads posted on social media for seasonal farm workers guaranteeing the minimum wage for a short time, or only when workers "become familiar" with the work.

Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey said many migrant workers are too scared to complain for fear of being deported because they have worked more hours than their visa allows.

"What we want to see is when people make a complaint [to the Fair Work Ombudsman], there's a firewall where their complaints and their stories can't be directly passed on to the Home Affairs Department," he said.

The federal government's new Industrial Relations Bill, passed last week, does not erect that "firewall', but it does ban job advertisements offering below the minimum award.

In a statement, Mr Giles said his government would try to encourage migrant workers to make official complaints.

"Currently, our visa system shifts too much risk away from employers and onto individuals. We need to fix this by focusing on exploitative employers, not seeking to cancel people's visas," he said.

Employment expert Associate Professor Chris F Wright from the University of Sydney, said the Fair Work Ombudsman needed more enforcement power.

"The government can ban job ads that advertise particular roles under the legal rate, but unless there's resources to enforce those laws, this situation isn't going to change," he said.

Sarah*, name has been changed to protect her identity.

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