Refugees in the Workplace

Refugee Week runs from 14 June 2020 – 20 June 2020 and aims to shed light on the issues refugees face in Australia and around the world. It’s a week to celebrate the different experiences and cultures of others by providing a voice to those who are silenced.

Refugees and asylum seekers face many issues starting their new lives in Australia, including visa uncertainty and financial insecurity. These issues can make them vulnerable to being exploited at work due to difficulties in securing paid employment and fears of authority in reporting any wrong doing by dodgy employers. The Migrant Employment Legal Service aims to support all migrant workers with their employment rights, including asylum seekers and refugees. This support may be in the form of advice, advocacy and other legal referrals.

Given the importance of this week, we thought we would tell some of the stories of refugee clients who have sought assistance from the Migrant Employment Legal Service.

Our clients’ stories


We recently helped Aamira,* a Sudanese refugee, was working ‘on call’ in disability support services. This meant Aamira had to make herself available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Aamira was expected to work 6 hours a day maximum, but the demands of the job required her to work up to 10 hours  because clients’ complex needs. Over the 12 months she spent with one client, Aamira often worked up to 10 hours per day, causing her to feel stressed and overtired. She told  her employer that she believed she was being overworked, and suddenly stopped receiving casual shifts. The Migrant Employment Legal Service came to Aamira’s aid at the right time: Employment solicitors were able to help Aamira and secured her significant compensation. With Aamira’s holistic legal health at heart, Marrickville Legal Centre’s tenancy team also assisted to secure Aamira stable housing. By attending to Aamira’s legal needs holistically, we  were able to link Aamira to  a tenancy support service who also assisted to secure Aamira stable housing.

Aamira was grateful for our help saying, “God bless you for helping me”. We were able to assist Aamira because she recognised she was being exploited and sought assistance. However, many refugees and asylum seekers hold the fear that reporting any issues or getting involved in any legal processes will jeopardise their protection applications or current visas. This is a major barrier in these clients accessing justice.


Sabbir* was on a refugee visa working 7 nights a week in a retail shop for $11 per hour. Sabir worked like this for over 6 years. He was exhausted trying to work and study fulltime only to barely make ends meet. On top of this he was promoted to manager and starting managing other staff. 

In 2017 Sabbir was fired on the spot for asking for a pay rise for his staff. He came to us for advice about whether he had been underpaid and his dismissal. We helped him quantify his underpayment. His employer had failed to pay him $270,000 in wages, penalty rates, leave and superannuation.  

We sent the business a letter of demand requesting the payment of this money. The business wrote back and falsely accused Sabir of stealing from the shop. We prepared an application to the Federal Circuit Court to claim Sabbir’s unpaid employment entitlements and to also seek penalties against the employer to stop them from doing this to other people.

We organised for Sabbir to get migration law and criminal law advice. Unfortunately, even though the threats against him may have been false, if he was charged with the theft, this posed a risk to Sabir’s visa and permanent residency pathway. Because of this risk that Sabir decided not to go ahead with his claim at court.

For migrant workers, their visa is often the most important thing.

Get in contact

If you or someone you know is experiencing problems at work, check out some of our resources and make an appointment to speak with a lawyer by calling 02 8002 1203. We can get a TIS interpreter to assist us in having a confidential conversation to help support and empower you, like Aamira and Sabbir.

*Names are changed to protect the clients we have assisted.

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