LIKE most international students, Juen Yap didn’t know what to expect when she got her first part time job in Melbourne.
Excited to be finally earning some money of her own, the Malaysian-born design student applied at one of the Indian takeaways in the city.
For almost two weeks she was paid $7 an hour in cash. The owner told her it was a training rate and that she would eventually pay her an extra dollar an hour.
“I didn’t think the pay was that bad at the time. Most of my friends were getting the same amount and we all know that when you work for Asian owners, they pay you less,” Juen says.
After a month, Juen worked up the courage to ask her boss for $10 an hour.
“A friend had told me what the minimum wage was and I was only getting half that. I thought my boss might understand that I needed some more money to pay for food and bills,” she says.
“Instead she just looked at me and said, ‘Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re so good now?’.”
Even though she needed the job, Juen decided to quit.
“I wasn’t going to be taken advantage of like that. My boss was Malaysian like me, so she trusted me and gave me good shifts, but she was also paying me nothing,” she says.
“She was so rude to me and I hated working there. She even called me after I quit asking me to bring back my uniform. It was just a t-shirt.”
When Juen first applied for the job, she didn’t know how much she should be paid. She didn’t know she could take breaks and she didn’t realise it was illegal to be paid in cash.
Back in Malaysia she’d worked as a waitress and earned a lot less than $8 an hour, but she says no international student should compare what they were paid back home to what they’re being paid in Australia.
“There is no comparison. Just because you got paid less in your home country, doesn’t mean you should get paid that here. In Australia they have rules.”
Now in her final year at RMIT University, Juen knows all the workplace rules off by heart and works part-time in a mobile phone shop.
But she still isn’t being paid the right amount.
“It’d be a dream come true to get $15 an hour like local students, but no one will give it to me. I applied for so many jobs and they all refused to hire me because they think I don’t speak English,” she says.
“It hurts. I know that local students should earn more because they live here and we’re not from here. I still feel like it’s unfair though. I’d be happy with just a bit less than local students. Maybe $12 an hour.”
Juen now gets $10 an hour. She wants to complain, but she’s worried she’ll be fired. Her boss just hired someone new and he’s working for $2 less.
It’s not just the money that upsets Juen. She speaks English fluently and says she just wants to be appreciated the same way local students are.
“None of my friends get the right amount of money and we all work really hard at our jobs. We don’t just sit around. I think our bosses treat us worse because they know how hard it is for us to get a job. They make us work longer hours and don’t give us our rights because they know we can’t quit,” she says.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m less of a person because I’m from overseas, like I don’t deserve be treated properly and don’t deserve to get all the things local students get without even asking for.”
Still Juen says she’s not giving up.
“Now that I know what my rights are, I’m going to demand as many of them as I can. Hopefully other international students will be inspired by my story and do the same. Then things might change for the better.”
Juen’s story is one of many. Read our report of how the former operators of two 7-Eleven stores in Victoria were fined a total of $150,000 and ordered to backpay $90,000 in wages after deliberately exploiting six international students; and fast food and retail union UNITES’s fight to abolish the 20-hour working restrictions placed on international students.