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Calls to abolish international students’ 20-hour work restrictions

Meld Magazine

Thu Apr 28 2011


AUSTRALIA’S fast food and retail workers union UNITE says 20-hour work restrictions are forcing students into low-paid sectors where they are vulnerable to exploitation. Elisa Scarton and Marcella Purnama report.

AUSTRALIA’S union for fast food and retail workers UNITE has renewed its call on the government to abolish the 20-hour working restrictions placed on international students.

This was after two former 7-Eleven operators were found out for deliberately exploiting six international students and ordered to backpay $90,000 in wages.

UNITE representative Mel Gregson said the restrictions forced international students into low-paid sectors where they were vulnerable to exploitation.

“International students can’t support themselves on low wages when they’re working only 20 hours a week,” she said.

“It creates a situation where a lot of employers force international students to work more hours for less pay. They then bully and threaten students with deportation if they complain.”

In 2009, The Age reported an Australian student and an international student were paid $14 and $9 per hour respectively for doing the same work at the same place.

Melbourne University Overseas Student Service spokesperson Yee Hooi Tee said little had changed since The Age report.

“I still meet with international students, especially in the hospitality and mobile phone industries, who are severely underpaid,” Ms Tee said.

But Ms Tee said it wasn’t just fear of deportation that kept international students from reporting their employers.

“Often they come from countries where there aren’t many rights for workers, so they don’t expect them in Australia. Other times they need the job to survive,” she said.

“With the 20-hour weekly working restrictions it’s difficult for them to find employment, so they stay where they are. They’re worried that an employer won’t hire them when they can get a local student who can work for longer.

“They then accept discriminatory and often unacceptable working conditions.”

Both UNITE and MUOSS have reported cases of international students not being paid for training sessions and probation periods, being forced to work long hours without breaks or being given impossibly short notice to come into work and then being threatened if they refuse.

Ms Tee also said many employers broke the law by paying international students cash-in-hand.

“That might seem like a good thing, but it isn’t. Receiving cash-in-hand often means students are off the books and their payment can be delayed or they don’t get paid at all. Then they can’t take it to court because there is no record of their employment,” she said.

In their petition to the government, UNITE said the abolishment of the 20-hour working restrictions would provide students with better flexibility and more employment options so they wouldn’t have to turn to underpaying jobs and exploitative employers.

When contacted, a spokesperson from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations said the government’s position on international student working restrictions wasn’t under review, and pointed Meld Magazine to a media release issued back in 2009.

In the statement, the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Chris Evans said international students were expected to have enough money to support themselves before they applied for a university course in Australia.

“International students can supplement their income through part-time work in Australia but the primary purpose of a student visa is to study and students should not rely on part-time work to meet their expenses,” Mr Evans said in the statement.

Work exploitation was among the issues raised by Bruce Baird when he was commissioned by the Federal Government to review the regulation of education services in the overseas student sector. His final report was released in February 2010.

But while international students should be given “all possible assistance to avoid workplace exploitation and effectively take action should it occur”, the 20 hour cap was not, in his review, an unreasonable restriction – and arguments the cap should be lifted in order to allow students to earn the income necessary to meet rising accommodation costs ignored the fact students should not rely on earnings within Australia to meet basic living costs.

He said in his report: “Many international students consider a job as part of their Australian experience. However, Australia does not guarantee that every international student will find a job. Further, there are very few jobs that pay enough to cover room, board and tuition while working less than 20 hours a week, particularly for people still gaining their qualifications. That is why DIAC asks students to establish that they have a minimum of $18,000 per annum for living costs, in addition to tuition fees and travel expenses.”

Ms Tee said students shouldn’t expect a change to their working restrictions, but they could still avoid workplace exploitation and discrimination in other ways.

She said the best thing students could do was make sure they were properly informed about their working rights before they even start looking for a job.

“Never begin work without knowing what your rights are and getting your employer to sign a contract promising to respect them. If your employer won’t sit down and write one with you, then walk away,” Ms Tee said.

As part of their Fair Work Campaign, MUOSS has created a sample employee contract for international students to take to their employers.

University of Melbourne students can arrange free appointments with the organisation to get advice or information about their working rights.

“Foreign workers have the same rights as local workers. If students feel like they’re being exploited then we can help them take the right action and speak to the right people,” Ms Tee said.

The Fair Work Ombudsman is also available to help international students with workplace issues. They can find information online or call 13 13 94 to speak to someone in their own language.

“Students should never feel afraid to voice their problems. If we can’t help you, then the ombudsman can. They can take your complaint to court and you can win,” Ms Tee said.

“Never give up and never let employers take advantage of you. If you speak up, you’re not only helping yourself, but your also helping to protect other international students from exploitation too.”