Lost in translation

A personal history of workplace exploitation as an international student

Hands exchanging cash Art: Tilini Rajapaksa

It was a normal Saturday, and the cafe I was working in was buzzing as usual. As I piled up used plates, saucers, mugs and cutlery into one holdable stack, behind me, the shouts of my name penetrated the stirring air above the cafe like bullets. I scooted back to the woman I was serving, but instead of a quick “Thank you, darling”, she looked up at me and said, “This is too busy for you. Your boss should have hired like ten more people you know?”

I had been caught off-guard, but managed to smile politely and whispered, “I know right? That’s called exploitation.” She gazed at me sympathetically.

I quickly ended the conversation and went back to work. I didn’t want to admit that I was paid only $15 per hour for this strenuous job, because I could imagine this kind woman’s jaw dropping if she learned this, and the questions that would follow: Why are you still here then? Why don’t you report it?

Yes, I well understood that I was exploited, but I kept working under these conditions — like most international students — because it’s virtually impossible for us to find a job that pays properly. Thinking of this makes me feel vulnerable. It also reminds me that I play a role by colluding with this corrupt system.

I had never worked for money before I came to Australia. I started my first job as a waitress at a yum-cha restaurant in August 2016, one month after I arrived in Sydney. I wasn’t treated well by the boss, and learned quickly that it was an environment where I was seen not as a person but as a means to an end — and a cheap an insignificant one at that. I was paid $11 per hour, cash in hand and off the book, when the national minimum wage for an adult casual employee was $22.10 per hour.

The boss of the restaurant was a harsh woman who was very proud of her business. She firmly believed that we were privileged to work in her restaurant for $11 to $14 per hour. She once said to the manager, “If they want to quit the job, let them. See if they could find another one that pays higher. I can easily find someone else to work anyway.”

She was right. Over half a million international students are currently studying in Australia. With many of us looking for a part-time job to make ends meet or ease the burden on our parents, it’s a buyer’s market for employers when it comes to hiring. For most of us, the choice is between earning $10 per hour and nothing.

Through the lens of capitalism, we are the ideal employees: young, energetic, uncertain about our rights, and constantly feeling inferior due to language and cultural barriers. Because of these attributes, dodgy employers don’t worry about being reported, because they know that someone who is willing to take up an underpaid job doesn’t have better choices, and is unlikely to report them and risk losing their job.

I stopped taking the job and myself too seriously. I started to consider the mistreatment and everything else I failed to understand as life lessons that I should embrace as part of my life overseas. Maybe this was what I needed, as someone who’d never set foot in the ‘real world’ before. Maybe there was nothing wrong with seeing myself as a means to an end — t was just a part-time job after all. I wouldn’t be waiting tables forever, so why not? These thoughts helped me rationalise the exploitation.

I eventually quit the job after four months, not because I was underpaid, but because I was sick of my employer’s arrogance and disrespect. By then, I thought I already understood exploitation, but I didn’t know it could sometimes be cunningly disguised.

In November 2016, I joined a communications agency as an intern. It was a small company run by two women, the owner and the manager, both friendly, intelligent and funny. The company targeted the Chinese consumer market while neither of them spoke Chinese. There were a few other interns there, all Chinese international students, and our job was to produce content for a Chinese social media platform.

My supervisors were affable. They cared about my life, made me laugh, took me to lunch, and respected my opinions at work. I liked the job and my relationship with them, and the fact that I could get an internship and work in an office building in the city. It was a pleasant change for me to be treated well in a Sydney workplace, although it was an internship and I didn’t make a cent out of it.

I spent a month in China for Spring Festival and was back at work in February 2017. My colleagues told me they had asked the boss to pay us when I was away. I learned that in Australia, unpaid internships are unlawful if the interns are doing “productive” work — i.e. assisting with the normal operation of the business. We should have been paid all along. My supervisors ignored the request and were particularly busy with business during those few days.

I trusted my supervisors so much that I doubted my colleagues at first. But it didn’t take long for me to see the fact that their kind gestures were simply an act. In April, they started to pay us. The wage was the precise minimum wage for a part time employee, although we were not told about our sick or annual leave entitlements. The boss would only pay us by sending invoices, with the condition that we all had our own Australian Business Numbers (ABNs), which are typically used by contractors but not ongoing employees. Paying employees as contractors can help employers avoid their tax, superannuation and insurance obligations. She called me after I resigned, asked me why I left, and why I would rather work for a cafe for $15 per hour than for her. She said she was heartbroken, and that it was compulsory to pay international students via ABN.

She was so confident of my ignorance about Australian legislation that she lied to my face. They had been using us: using the enthusiasm of young workers yearning to enrich their resumes in Australia; using our lack of familiarity with Australian rules and laws; using the alienation and insecurity of international students who could be easily fooled by their caring faces; using the taboo of talking about money in Chinese culture to keep us as free labourers. They knew we couldn’t afford to sue them. I left, but some stayed, registered for an ABN, started ‘owning a business’ in Australia, and earning $17.70 per hour from it. More Chinese students would come and work as interns and become free labour sources for at least three months. They designed a flawless scheme targeted at us. I felt not only exploited, but betrayed. That’s why I left.

I can still recall the last dinner I had with my employers before I resigned. The manager, who used to be an international student, talked about how she loved her uni life. “Even when I worked in a restaurant and earned very little money, I always knew that I wouldn’t be there for long. I have a future.” I looked at her attentively, and she looked so sincere and empathetic. I suddenly realised that she may have had the same kind of struggle as me before, but she had transformed into an advocate and beneficiary of the system that used to treat her unfairly.

At the time, I failed to comprehend her words and their irony — they had been lost in translation.