In a recent case a Melbourne real estate agent had to repay wages and receive extensive advice from the industrial umpire about its workplace obligations, after it was revealed a visa-holding worker was paid just $9 an hour.
The employee worked on a 485 temporary graduate visa and was drafting contracts, assisting buyers and doing general duties. The case went to the Fair Work Ombudsman and the business owner agreed to back-pay the 28-year-old Chinese worker $5,000 after the Ombudsman found he was being underpaid.
The employer originally disputed with the Ombudsman that the Chinese worker was being underpaid, claiming the worker was being correctly paid as an intern.
However, the worker was an employee, and even if on probation, was entitled to the minimum wage.
"We have minimum pay rates in Australia, they apply to everyone, and they are not negotiable.” - Fair Work Ombudsman, Natalie James
Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James said employers must understand applicable wage rates.
"It is unacceptable for an employer to take advantage of any worker, especially overseas workers who have a limited understanding of their workplace rights," she said. "We have minimum pay rates in Australia, they apply to everyone, and they are not negotiable.
The Ombudsman said while many employers did the right thing, there were some who sought a competitive advantage by exploiting vulnerable workers, such as visa-holders.
The Fair Work Ombudsman acts on cases on underpayment: the FWO recovered $20,400 for a Melbourne store man who was paid $19 an hour for three-and-a-half years when he should have received up to $23.08; $8900 was recovered for a salesman who was not paid for weekend work, annual leave and travel time during overseas business trips; and $8000 was recovered by the FWO for a labourer who should have received a casual hourly rate but was paid part-time wages without the entitlements of a permanent employee.
In 2014-15, the Fair Work Ombudsman recovered $702,886 in underpaid wages and entitlements for 203 employees, in Melbourne's eastern suburbs alone.
Fair Work Ombudsman’s Information on internships is available on the Work experience and internships page
Employers have been warned by the Fair Work Ombudsman that understanding correct pay rates and awards is their responsibility, and underpaying workers is a serious matter.