‘The big one is underpayment’: new centre fights migrant workers’ exploitation | Australia news

A new centre designed to combat exploitation of migrants is yet to open, but it’s already hearing horror stories from overseas workers across a range of industries.

Set to officially open in August, the Melbourne-based centre will provide assistance to workers on temporary and permanent visas, and conduct training and outreach to inform migrants about their work rights.

“The big one is underpayment,” the Migrant Workers Centre director, Matt Kunkel, told Guardian Australia.

“We’ve heard of people on wages as low as $11 or $8 [an hour] as a flat rate. In some cases people don’t know they’re being ripped off. In other cases they know but they don’t know what to do about it.”

Kunkel spoke to Guardian Australia on the same day the Fair Work ombudsman announced it had retrieved almost $472,000 in owed wages from 243 businesses in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

The creation of the new centre by the Victorian Trades Hall Council using a $2m grant from the Victorian government follows the recent 7-Eleven exploitation scandals, and a growing number of high-profile underpayment cases in Melbourne’s hospitality industry.

Earlier this month, Guardian Australia reported allegations of underpayment at a trio of Fitzroy venues owned by the Ichi Group, including the popular Japanese eatery Ichi Ni Nana.

In that case, Asian migrant workers were allegedly been paid less than their Australian and European counterparts. Ichi Group has refused to comment on the claims.

The diversity of the centre’s organisers is expected to be key to its success. They will be able to speak the languages of workers from China, India and large parts of the Middle East.

Migrant Workers Centre organiser Sam Jiayi Liu is himself a migrant worker, having moved to Australia from Hong Kong only three months ago.

“I personally don’t have a language barrier or culture shock, but for a worker coming from rural China, where they have little or zero access to foreign culture, coming to Australia to work can be a huge shock,” he said.

The union movement has also recently attempted to organise the horticulture industry to fight against the exploitation of overseas workers on fruit and vegetable farms. Growers have expressed scepticism, accusing unions of being motivated by self-interest.

Kunkel said that while there were many organisations providing services for migrant workers and their families, there was no one focused on their industrial needs.

The centre had already been approached by people with complaints about underpayment, workplace harassment, bullying, racial vilification and unfair dismissal. In some cases, workers complained they had not been paid for months, Kunkel said.

Most clients were expected to come from the hospitality industry, but some who had approached the centre worked in cleaning, security, construction, transport and healthcare.

The centre was not aiming to replicate the work of other unions, Kunkel said, but would look to become involved in sectors where workers were not organised. He gave the examples of car washes, massage parlours and nail salons.

Jiayi Liu, who is the centre’s communications officer, said the unit also aimed to give migrant workers a voice so they were not just seen as victims.

“Migrant workers are not only living in Australia, they’re not only working in Australia, they are also enjoying Australia,” he said. “And they’re fighting back and getting organised.”