Human rights and international law expert Professor Hilary Charlesworth, says that Australia's appointment to the UN Human Rights Council gives the country an opportunity to examine its own human rights record.
University of Melbourne researchers surveyed 56 outworkers from the suburbs of Springvale, Delahey, and St Albans.
The average wage for the outworkers was $7.74 per hour. While five of the workers earned close to the minimum wage, 80 per cent earned $10 an hour or less.
The clothing industry award wage is $18.63 per hour.
All the outworkers were born outside Australia, mostly in Vietnam, though most had been in the country for 20 years or more.
While national legislation classes outworkers as employees, 38 per cent were hired as so called ‘contractors’, illustrating that sham contracting remained a significant problem.
The majority did not receive benefits, such as superannuation or paid holiday leave.
Study leader Professor Christina Cregan, from the University of Melbourne’s Department of Management and Marketing, said a lack of English language skills often left outworkers vulnerable to exploitation.
“Although the incidence of outwork in the clothing industry is reported to have rapidly increased in the developed world in recent decades, very little is known about the wages and conditions of the workers,” Professor Cregan said.
“Outworkers are hidden or invisible.” Professor Cregan said the home becomes a factory.
The outworkers surveyed worked 10 hours a day on average, but for ‘rush’ jobs, this could grow to 18.
Despite unrealistic deadlines being imposed on them, outworkers are often required to work overnight in order to finish orders. If they fail to do so, they are at risk of losing work in the future.
Most suffered a variety of work-related health issues, both psychological and physical, but received no paid sick leave.
Depression was widely reported, with only three workers not experiencing any and half the sample being depressed "a lot".
Back-ache was second-ranked, with the majority of the sample experiencing it "sometimes" and a further fifth experiencing it "a lot".
Outworkers also reported problems with sight, allergies, general aches and pains and breathing difficulties.
Professor Cregan said that outworker conditions meant buying ‘Made in Australia’ clothes was no guarantee that workers were not being exploited.