Workplace horrors confront international students

Carrie Wen exposes the ongoing exploitation that international students deal with across Australia.

Rather than living in luxury, traveling around and partying all night, the reality of international student life in Australia is exhausting: struggling with endless study and the high cost of living. In order to balance the pressure to perform at uni with living expenses, many international students choose to do part-time work while studying. More than 400,000 international students enrol in Australian education institutions, often paying tens of thousands of dollars in upfront fees while struggling to get by on far less than minimum wage.

A recent USyd study indicated that 60 per cent of international students living in Sydney are paid below the minimum wage, $17.29 per hour across all industries. Among these cases, 80 per cent of international students working in restaurants are paid below minimum wage. Many workplaces do not comply with fair work legislation, especially small businesses that offer entry-level jobs, such as restaurants, cafés, and Asian supermarkets. Instead, they use international students as cheap labour and exert excessive control over their behaviour at work.

But why do these students not report their employers to the authorities? I posed that question to some international students, but what became clear through our conversations was that the majority had. Those that hadn’t said that their youth and fear put them in a position of vulnerability.

There is a “rampant level of illegal underpayment for young adult employees generally,” says Thomas McLoughlin, the principal legal practitioner at USyd’s Student Representative Council (SRC). “This is quite consistent of rampant level [sic] of illegal underpayment for young adult employees generally. Sadly, in that kind of environment, the more vulnerable adult employees, such as international students, especially those without family support and other professional contexts, are subject to even more exploitation.”

Living in an unfamiliar environment is tough for everyone, let alone undergrads who are only just entering adulthood. For international students, these problems are compounded by language limitations, which can make it difficult to find a job. But, ultimately, fear is the biggest deterrent: fear that they will get into trouble with their employer, their family or even the government. Without family support—and with the possibility that they might lose their visa—such fears are heightened.

Ron McCallum, Professor of Industrial Law and former Dean of the Law School, says that fear of deportation is not unfounded.

“If student visa holders have breached or broken condition of the visa, it’s possible for the government to cancel the visa.” Of course, if a visa gets cancelled, then a student’s dream of studying overseas goes up in smoke.

It may not be fear, but a lack of awareness about labour law and regulations, that holds some international students back, as proved by 2015’s 7-Eleven scandal.

“The victims of 7-Eleven are relatively lucky,” McCallum says. “7-Eleven is one of the biggest convenience store chains in Australia, plus some victims stepped out and defended the rights for all the workers who are being ripped off, including international students. But for people who work for small business like restaurants, clothing shops, barbershops, justice is harder to come by.”

Many international students have a justified fear of quitting a bad job, knowing they have few other options. According to a report by Hobsons Solutions, only 34 per cent of workplaces hire international graduates despite international students contributing $19 billion to the Australian economy annually. Lack of interest from local companies further restricts international students’ options, pushing them towards insecure and exploitative employment.

“If the student goes to career hub at the University of Sydney, they’ll see nearly 80 per cent of those jobs provided by employers are open to permanent resident or Australian citizens only,” Clement Sun, a USU Board Director, tells Honi.

Among undergraduates, international students are disadvantaged because their visas limit the amount of hours they can work. But many local companies refuse to hire international graduates, who are eligible for a two-year working visa after graduation, in case these employees return to their home country after two years.

“That’s why they would not hire international graduates,” Sun explains. “I’ve talked to many local companies’ human resources departments, a lot of them considered the cost of the interview and training new employees because of people leaving the country.”

Sun thinks that companies have misjudged international students, in this respect.

“International students…desire to learn more professional knowledge in University and more adept working skills in the workplace, not just finish their degree and go back home with zero working experience.”

The fear of stepping out of one’s comfort zone also contributes to the problem. A lot of international students prefer to work in companies of a similar cultural background, with coworkers who speak the same language. Therefore, even when they realise their mistreatment, they do not want to quit the job and apply for a new one. The words of Rayna, one student I spoke to, seem true of many other international students I interviewed: “I can speak English, but I feel safer when I work with people who can speak Mandarin.”

Unsurprisingly, exploitation takes its toll: many international students are subject to verbal and emotional abuse, which can damage their self-esteem, causing them to question their ability.

As for the legal advice, McLoughlin suggests that students look at a pay calculator on the Fair Work Ombudsman website and calculate how much they’ve been underpaid. After that, they can find a lawyer to write a letter to the business, ordering them to pay the underpaid wages straight away or face legal action. The USyd SRC offers a free legal service that may be able to assist with this process. Most businesses will choose to pay outstanding wages instead of going to court. In the event that students can’t access legal help, reporting the business to the Fair Work Ombudsman or Australia Tax Office is also an option.

Natalie James, an employee at the Fair Work Ombudsman, told ABC News that the FWO only received a few hundred complaints from international students in 2016. Given the huge number of international students in Australia, this is far less than one would expect. James said that there is no need for international students to worry about their visa because, if employees are assisting the Ombudsman with an investigation, it will ensure your visa is not at risk.