Student representatives of the international student body in Canberra have come together to fight workplace exploitation by employers.

The campaign, launched by the Council of International Students Australia, reflects long-term concerns regarding international students being permitted to work just 20 hours per week.

The restriction has forced many students to work extra hours, and accept cash-in-hand at low hourly rates in order to support themselves.

Following a recent investigation into the extent to which large corporations, such as franchise chain 7-Eleven, are exploiting their international student workers, leaders from the Australian National University, the University of Canberra and Canberra Institute of Technology collaborated to tell Fairfax Media that they can not study if they are hungry and can not afford to eat.

Australia’s current regulations allow international students to work 40 hours per fortnight, or 20 hours per week, for the duration of their studies.  Many believe that it will not take much for the government to alleviate the stress, and an increase of ten hours per week will significantly decrease international student exploitation.

Kevin Escobia, originally from the Philippines, has been in Australia for one and a half years, studying a double Masters in Business Administration and Professional Accounting at the University of Canberra.

Kevin has first-hand experience of balancing studies with working to pay rent, and he believes the strict 20 hour rule creates stressed and desperate students, and that an extra 10 hours of legal work would make a world of difference.

He says: “We would significantly decrease the desperation of international students to have enough money to get them going through the week…exploitation would be lesser, if we get enough money.

“Personally, I’m okay with making it conditional…Because if the government’s reason for offering just 20 hours, is so that students can focus on their academics, then it would be conditional so that if the student isn’t working well at school- that working right would be re-considered.”

Many students are concerned that if they complain about the way they are treated by employers, they risk being deported for breaching their visa terms.

International students, along with other drivers at the Gungahlin Crust Pizza Store, won back pay this month after complaints about their working conditions were aired by Fairfax Media.

Nnaemeka Nwosu, a student from the University of Canberra studying for his Masters in International Development, said there should be flexibility with the limit on working hours.

“One size can’t fit all,” he said, “There are students from Africa, south-east Asia and South America who are particularly finding this Australian environment quite expensive.

“I understand the rationale behind the limit being created in the first place, the 20-hour week, to give students enough time to try to study.

“But if a student is hungry or can’t get money for rent, that student will not be able to study.”

Many activists believe that most international students are not aware of their rights, making them easy targets for fraudulent employers.

Australia’s international students are not alone in their battle for equality; many domestic students agree that the 20 hour limit puts vulnerable students at risk.

Chris Wilson, a domestic student and president of the ANU Postgraduate and Research Students’ Association, believes the current visa laws need to be amended.

He says: “I’ve heard of many situations of students being exploited, whether it’s being told to accept a lower wage, to be able to look the other way on the hours, in order to get enough money to be able to afford food and accommodation in Australia which is a very high cost country.

“We’re trying to address that through the removal of the 20-hour work week or to reposition that in a situation across the whole sector that encourages students to be able to survive while they’re here, to thrive and to be able to get the high quality education that Australia is known for.”

The Australian government is yet to indicate its position on the matter, but speaking at a press conference in Brisbane earlier this month, Peter Dutton, the country’s Immigration Minister, said the issue would need to be “investigated”.

He says: “There’ll be a process for that to go through and we can make comment on that in due course.”

Image via Shutterstock.

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