Ombudsman speaks out against international student workplace exploitation

‘Students need to know there is a minimum wage,’ says 2018 SRC Councillor Steven Wu

The Fair Work Ombudsman has released an open letter to over half a million international students across Australia in an effort to raise awareness around workplace rights, urging visa holders who suspect they are being mistreated by employers to assert their right to fair working conditions.

The message is part of a coordinated effort to combat worker exploitation, an issue pertinent to visa holders who suspect speaking out may jeopardise their right to study and work in Australia. The letter, published in late September, offers information for students working in Australia under a student visa, which limits work to 20 hours per week, and encourages students to report mistreatment.

“If there’s a problem with your pay or if other issues arise at your work, I encourage you to speak to us,” it reads.

“Under an arrangement with the Department of Immigration Border Protection and my agency we can offer you some protections even if you’re in breach of your visa conditions.”

In July, Fair Work launched a revised ‘Anonymous Report’ function on its website, allowing students to make a report in one of 16 different languages. The feature was prompted by reports that 60 per cent of international students believed that contesting workplace mistreatment would either achieve nothing, or exacerbate the situation.

Despite only accounting for 2 per cent of all requests for assistance to Fair Work, underpaid international students account for almost a quarter of visa related litigations lodged by the Ombudsman.

Last year, a Sydney cleaner was penalised more than $11,000 for underpaying staff by almost $3,000, while in August, an international student employed at a pizza chain was underpaid almost $5000.

Recently elected member of the Students’ Representative Council (SRC), Steven Wu, lamented the ubiquity of similar stories amongst the University of Sydney international students community.

“I have a friend who works at a Chinese restaurant, he gets paid $10 an hour and works 30–40 hours a week, but only gets paid for 20,” Wu told Honi. “He doesn’t want to have his Visa cancelled. It’s really bad.”

Wu was elected to the 90th SRC in late September along with seven other representatives from Panda associated tickets, a coalition focused on international students’ interests. Wu said it was his goal to coordinate with the University of Sydney Union (USU) to advocate for workplace rights.

“Students need to know there is a minimum wage,” he said.

The minimum wage for part time employment is currently $18.29 an hour, with workers on a student visa capped at 20 hours work per week. This allows minimum wage workers to earn a maximum of $365.80 a week, or $19,021 a year. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection stipulates that annual living costs in Australia amount to $19,830; a contradiction which perhaps explains the reticence of international students who feel they must accept exploitative wage conditions in exchange for more hours.

Alongside the pressure imposed by visa limitations, the cost of living in Sydney poses a threat to the livelihood of international students. Rental prices in Sydney rose by 4.8 per cent in the first quarter of 2016 — the largest increase since 2011 — whilst energy prices have risen by up to 20 per cent since July.

The appeal from Fair Work comes at a time of particular turbulence for all young Australian workers. Earlier this year, the Fair Work Commission ruled in favour of a cut to penalty rates, meaning that workers in retail, hospitality and fast food have had their wages decreased on public holidays, such as last weekend’s Labour Day. Night time penalty rates were also cut for fast food workers, a move likely to disproportionately affect full time students.

The Fair Work Ombudsman offers free consultation and requests for assistance. To find out more about workplace rights and student visas, call 13 13 94, or visit the Fair Work website.

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