international students in Australia
A study has found that international students in Australia are being exploited in the workplace. Source: SAEED KHAN/AFP

Key findings from an Australian study has found that many international students in Australia are being exploited in the workplace. The report “International Students and Wage Theft in Australia” by the University of New South Wales and the University of Technology Sydney, found that over three quarters (77%) were paid below the minimum wage. 

One in four (26%) of all respondents earned 12 Australian dollars or less per hour in their lowest-paid job, or approximately half of the minimum wage for a casual employee. 

The situation is no better since the National Temporary Migrant Work Survey (NTMW Survey) in 2016, which found 25% of the 2,392 international student participants earned AU$12 or less in their lowest-paid job.

“This figure has remained static despite increases in the statutory minimum wages since 2016, the introduction of legislative protections for vulnerable workers, and an increased focus on international students by the Fair Work Ombudsman,” said the report.

International students on a valid student visa are allowed to work up to 40 hours per fortnight during term time.

Their findings are based on a survey conducted in April and May 2019 from over 5,000 international students in the country.

International students in Australia with poor English fare worse

International students in Australia

The report found that 77% of international students in Australia were paid below the minimum casual hourly wage. Source: Drew Angerer/ Getty Images North America/ Getty Images via AFP

Some of the other key findings from the report include:

  • 91% of those with self-reported poor or fair English were paid below the minimum casual hourly wage, but underpayment was also experienced by 68% of those with self-reported good or very good English.  
  • A third (32%) of bachelor’s degree students were paid AU$12 per hour or less — the highest proportion of any student cohort.
  • International students of all nationalities experience underpayment. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of respondents were paid less than the minimum wage for a casual worker (AU$22+ per hour), and 35% of respondents were paid less than the statutory minimum wage (AU$18+ per hour).
  • Chinese students fared worse than others for underpayment — 54% were paid AU$12 per hour or less, while approximately one in ten were paid less than AU$10 per hour.
  • Close to four in ten (38%) reported that they did not seek information or help for a problem at work because they did not want “problems that might affect my visa”

Among those who experienced work problems, 62% suffered in silence and did not try to access help or seek information to address the problem. 

The most common reason why international students in Australia did not seek information or help for problems was that they feared they would lose their job (selected by 48% of respondents). 

“This fear appears well-founded, since seven percent of respondents in this survey reported that they had indeed lost their job because they complained,” said the report.

The study recommended that the 40-hour fortnightly work limitation on student visas should be removed as it is “a major source of source of international students vulnerability to exploitation” according to Bassina Farbenblum, one of the authors of the study. 

Among the report’s recommendations include:

  • Introducing a new effective and accessible wage recovery mechanism
  • More effective government investigation and enforcement
  • The removal of the 40-hour fortnightly work limitation on student visas 

Help with workplace issues

International students who would like to learn more about their workplace rights or who would like to make a complaint can contact the Fair Work Ombudsman for more information.

“An employee can’t get into trouble or have their visa cancelled for contacting us to ask for information about their pay or other entitlements,” assures the Australian government agency.

To do this, create an account and make an online inquiry.

“You can also contact us anonymously to help us keep workplaces fair. You can make a report in your language using our translated Anonymous report form, which is available in multiple languages,” notes their website.

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