The dark side of Sydney’s job market

Mariessa Lai reveals the lawbreakers of the Fair Work Act and the brutal side of Sydney’s job market.

photo by Lei Yao

In recent years, the graduate job market is becoming increasingly competitive. According to the Graduate Outcomes Survey, the proportion of graduates securing full time employment after finishing their degree has plummeted from 85.2 percent in 2008 to 72.9 percent recently. It is a tough market out there for fresh graduates, especially international students. In the beginning of their job search, new graduates are often confronted with the tough paradox of entry level jobs demanding at least two years of experience. An international student graduate may soon discover that lurking under the hustling and bustling streets of Sydney’s CBD, the lawbreakers of the Fair Work Act run wild.

There are employers who attempt to utilise free labour and exploit fresh graduates. Some even have the audacity to post fake job ads online, or even in the University job portal. These employers will advertise along the lines of a paid full time job promising a $50,000-$60,000 starting salary but when the candidate turns up to the interview and the employer realises they are just a fresh international graduate, the employer will use various excuses such as “being inexperienced,’ verbally re-framing the role as a three-month “unpaid internship” or an “unpaid probationary period. ” Only after passing this “probationary period” or “unpaid internship” will the candidate will start getting paid.

Unfortunately, a lot of these “job offers” are done verbally without signing a formal agreement. Being inexperienced, some students are willing to accept these “opportunities” as useful work experience. However, towards the end of the 3-month period, the employer will use various excuses such as “underperformance,” “not meeting expectations” or make claims that the company has insufficient funds to pay them the promised wage.  The candidate is then fired, leaving the candidate with no pay, and no reference.

This experience often triggers a negative downward spiral for the candidate, as they are left with no verifiable work experience to find another better job. According to Fair Work, this scenario is a breach of Fair Work legislation, as there is an established employment relationship. Fair Work’s website states that:

 “Any period beyond what is reasonably required to demonstrate the skills required for the job must be paid at the appropriate minimum rate of pay”.

Moreover, unpaid internships which act as a probationary period are not legal, as it is not part of the vocational course requirement to perform such internships or unpaid probationary period – hence, it is deemed as illegal.

Sue* was a victim of such a situation. Newly graduated, she applied to a company as a Marketing and Administration assistant. The role was advertised online as a paid position but when Sue arrived at her interview, she was told that since she was a fresh graduate, she would have to work three months for free and that if her performance exceeded the employer’s expectation, they would start paying her at the end of the three-month period and confirm her as permanent staff. For the first three months, Sue worked extremely hard, going above and beyond in handling everything from administration enquiries to marketing tasks such as graphic design and copywriting. However, towards the end of the 3-month tenure, the employer claimed the company was unable to employ additional staff as they weren’t performing well financially. Sue was dismissed without reason. She also found it hard to fight back, as initially, the employer only verbally offered employment without signing any contract. As a result, this outrageous employment scam left her with no pay, despite working hard for almost three months.

Another victim to this scenario is John*. Achieving stellar results throughout his Finance degree in University and successfully completing internships at various coveted firms, John applied for a full-time paid role in a financial company. In the interview, John was informed that the role was unpaid for the first three months and, provided that he passed the probation, he would then start getting paid. Knowing his rights as an employee and that unpaid trials for a prolonged period are against Fair Work regulations, John refused the job offer. He reported this company, which had advertised unlawfully on the University careers site. As a result, the employer was banned from posting any further job ads on the University website.

Another insidious element to Sydney’s employment market for graduates is the common situation of being overworked and underpaid. Bob* works in an educational institution as a graphic designer. Despite his excellent work ethic and skills, the owner is not willing to pay him more than $120 per day, and he is expected to work at least 10-12 hours a day and even overtime on weekends. As Bob is not a permanent resident of Australia and under a temporary work visa, it is difficult for him to find a job elsewhere. The majority of job ads require candidates to be Australian Citizens or Permanent Residents. With few established networks, Bob felt he had little choice but to continue working for this exploitative company just to gain experience. He could only hope to secure a better job with less exploitative working conditions once he was granted Permanent Residency.

The emerging reality is that many international graduates find themselves caught in similarly distressing employment binds, ironically unable to secure work upon graduation without the unreasonable additional requirement of work experience. Many will, sadly, continue being exploited by these types of unethical companies. Small companies, in particular some Chinese-owned businesses are guilty of performing such vile acts in the labour market, deliberately exploiting fresh graduates, especially international students.

The remedy to this situation is to understand your rights as an employee and job seeker. Be confident of your rights and report to the appropriate channels such as your University career centre, University legal service and Fair Work Ombudsman should you find any employer breaching employment legislation. As international students, we must not be afraid of exposing these unacceptable practices, so that these employers do not continue to operate lawlessly, thinking themselves invulnerable and invisible. They must understand they can be exposed – and by the very people they seek to exploit.

*To protect their identities, all names of persons interviewed for this article are fictional.

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