Widespread Exploitation in International Student Workplace


Australia’s glowing reputation for studying abroad has come under fire this week as the widespread exploitation of the country’s foreign students has been revealed.

A collaborative investigation by Fairfax Media and the ABC’s “Four Corners” program exposed the extent to which 7-Eleven, a global organisation operating one of the largest supermarket franchises in Australia, takes advantage of its international student workforce.

Via Youtube.

For a number of years, students have flocked from all over the world for the chance to earn a degree in Australia’s safe and warm environment. Many are forced to take up part-time work to cover living costs, but a staggering number are falling victim to crooked employers who exploit their lack of knowledge regarding Australian working laws.

Many students are finding it hard to get paid work due to changes in Australian visa conditions that restrict their weekly work entitlement. Employers are using this to their advantage; hiring students they know are unaware of the rules and employing them for cheap labour. The problem is growing and certainly becoming a systematic issue for international students in Australia.

The Fairfax Media investigation demonstrated that foreign students in the 7-Eleven network, which runs approximately 620 stores across the nation, are often forced to work like slaves. The majority are paid less than half the legal rate of pay, rejected for overtime and after-hours penalty rates, and often violently threatened if they complain. Some employees even reported working weeks on end without receiving a pay cheque.

Helen Szoke, a former race discrimination commissioner observed, “what we don’t want are international students going home telling stories about being treated badly or being treated in a way which constitutes racism.”

Despite this declaration, international students within the cleaning and hospitality industries are being treated differently simply because they are not Australian. The top three countries of origin for international student cleaners are India (51.5 percent), Colombia (15.2 percent), and Sri Lanka (12.1 percent).

Most laws that cover employment in Australia can be found in the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth). The act outlines rights for workers within the businesses of cleaning and hospitality under the Modern Awards system.

These Modern Awards typically provide entitlements for casual workers, including: a 25 percent casual rate on top of the minimum salary per hour; penalty rates for employees working late hours, weekends and public holidays; an unpaid 30 minute break during the first five hours of work, and an unpaid 20 minute break if they work five hours more; and payment of superannuation, where casual workers over18 who earn $450 per month must be paid superannuation.

Omar (whose name has been changed) is originally from Singapore, but he moved to Australia to obtain a degree from a prestigious university in Sydney. Throughout his studies, Omar was employed part-time at a local restaurant.

Omar undertook a 4-hour trial shift before being offered the job, and for this, he is yet to be paid.

Omar was never asked to sign a contract of employment, and so began working for $13 per hour. He was paid cash-in-hand and was never supplied with a payslip. Often, Omar did not receive the $13 an hour he had been promised. To add to this, he would work 6-hour shifts and not be given a break.

Too afraid to confront his boss, Omar relied on his income support to see him through his studies. Despite his ill treatment, he worried the restaurant would cease his employment if he were to complain.

On average, student cleaners in Australia are paid $15 an hour, regardless of the fact that the national starting wage is $24.35, a figure which most domestic cleaners are already being paid.

As a result, many international students are living below the poverty line, with average weekly earnings of $325.86. Not only is this a struggle for the country’s international student population, but it also means that Australian cleaners are being forced out of the market due to the number of foreign students willing to work for a lower rate.

Kevin describes himself as “just an average student”, but leaving the Philippines to pursue an education in Australia has been far from easy.

He says: “It’s really expensive. And we can see that all over the news that Australia really does have one of the highest costs when it comes to studying. For instance accommodation is really expensive.”

Kevin claims that the 40-hours per fortnight, or 20-hours per week, of work that international students are entitled to is simply not enough. He labels it a vicious cycle that leaves students vulnerable and exposed to exploitative employers.

“A lot of international students would be so desperate to work, even in abusive working environments, just to be able to support their needs, their weekly needs.

“And so I think that’s where the exploitation by employers comes in, because they know there are heaps of international students who are willing to take on jobs which are not offering what should be offered.”

Student leader at the Canberra Institute of Technology, Kofi Osei Bonsu, is urging students to press for the government to allow them to work more hours.

He says: “Students are really suffering in silence. I believe that, if the government increases the 20 hour limit to 30- at least- it will help stop this exploitation…I want the government to do more.”

Last week, Australia’s Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, discussed the proposal to grant amnesty for international student workers willing to speak out about their experience without fear of punishment for breaking the 20-hour weekly limit.

He says: “I think any of those matters obviously need to be properly investigated and the appropriate response be provided at the time, but there’ll be a process for that to go through and we can make comment on that in due course.”

With the younger generation playing an integral role to global stability, Australia’s growing reputation as a region where foreign, fee-paying students are exploited could greatly diminish the country’s international influence. As the popularity of study abroad continues to rise, so too does the importance of a cultural understanding within education; so what does Australia’s attitude towards international student workers mean for the country’s education sector?

Image via Shutterstock.

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