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Enticing international students to Australia is big business. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, education is our third largest export industry - with international students contributing over 19 billion dollars to the economy last year. Australia is renowned for its flexible visas which allow overseas students to work during their studies. But a recent high profile scandal has brought the vulnerability of these students to light.
19 May 2016 - 12:08 PM  UPDATED 12 Sep 2016 - 11:44 AM

There are currently around 330,000 international students studying in Australia - and the number is growing.
A 2015 Department of Immigration report found Australia's international education sector experienced an 8 per cent growth in the number of student visa holders last year. One of the competitive advantages Australia has over countries like the UK and Canada is the right for students to work while they study.

International students can work for up to 40 hours per fortnight during school semesters and unlimited hours during school vacation periods.

International students can work for up to 40 hours per fortnight during school semesters and unlimited hours during school vacation periods. Students are entitled to minimum rights and conditions under the National Employment Standards - including annual leave, public holidays and maximum weekly work hours. But some unscrupulous employers are exploiting vulnerable students. Nina Khairina is the president of the Council of International Students Australia, or CISA, the national peak body for foreign students. She explains some common illegal workplace practices.

 

Some illegal workplace practices include working without an employment contract, or not offering a pay slip.

"Some examples include working without an employment contract, or not offering a pay slip. Students not receiving a safe work practice, or students have been asked to perform duties on top of that as well as the most common perhaps is students not being paid the minimum wage."

Anti-Slavery Australia Director Professor Jennifer Burn says Australia's high cost of living often forces students into being exploited at work.

"Sometimes students just are in such a situation of financial vulnerability that they are really relying on whatever work they can find and they do agree to work for substandard working payments or conditions because they desperately need money."

Sometimes people are prohibited from talking to others freely at work. They're not paid properly. They're paid substantially differently from other people in the same place.

Anti-Slavery Australia provides advocacy and legal advice for  exploited student workers.  

"Sometimes people are prohibited from talking to others freely at work. They're not paid properly. They're paid substantially differently from other people in the same place. We've also seen cases of where international students believe they have a very large debt they have to pay back. Sometimes there's been deception involved. Sometimes personal documents such as passport are confiscated by an unscrupulous employer. In all these situations, there may be forced labour in Australia."

Professor Burn says one of the worst  offenders is 7-Eleven, the nation's largest convenience store chain.
A joint Fairfax-Four Corners 2015 investigation suggested up to two-thirds of 7-Eleven stores had illegal employment practices with many staff grossly underpaid.

Grave exploitation in Australia might be forced labour and that can be punishable on conviction for a period of 7 or 9 years.

"To date I'm not aware of any cases where the level of exploitation was so severe that there could be forced labour. That isn't to say it doesn't happen and I would encourage any person who is fearful that they may be operating in such a coercive environment to reach out. Grave exploitation in Australia might be forced labour and that can be punishable on conviction for a period of 7 or 9 years or even more in some circumstances but these are very serious forms of labour exploitation."

There are claims the 7-Eleven case could be the tip of the iceberg of wage exploitation. United Voice, a trade union representing over 120 thousand workers, recently conducted a survey of more than 200 international students. It found that sixty per cent earned less than the federal minimum wage and that a quarter received only $10 or less an hour.

 

International students have the same protections as all workers in Australia under the Fair Work Act and are entitled to the national minimum wage of $17.29 an hour.

The Fair Work Ombudsman is the government regulatory body which aims to ensure employers comply with the Fair Work Act. Fair Work's Carey Trundle says international students have the same protections as all workers in Australia under the Fair Work Act and are entitled to the national minimum wage of $17.29 an hour.

"So when someone comes to us to seeks assistance, we will make an assessment as to what is the best way to assist that worker and it may be through alternative dispute resolutions such as mediation. It may be through providing education. It may be through assisting someone to take an assisted small claims matter or the matter may come to the overseas workers team where a full investigation is conducted and an enforcement outcome may result at the end of that investigation."

 

Both employees and employers need more education around fair work practices.

She says they work to ensure students aren't penalised for reporting issues.

"We encourage anyone with information or evidence of exploitation to contact us. And if it does come to our attention that workers may have breached visa conditions, we use discretion in referring matters to the department of immigration and we certainly work with the department to try and ensure workers who are actively assisting us with investigation are not penalised in regards to their visas."

Yet CISA's Nina Khairina says many students remain silent about their work conditions.  
 
"Students first of all are not sure where to go to. A lot of the advisers that we asked actually have expressed the fear of their international students not wanting to report to them because they think the university is going to report to the immigration and cancel their visa if they choose to expose themselves."

Many working international students get in trouble because they don't understand the Australian legal system, their work rights, and visa conditions.

Nina Khairina says both employees and employers need more education around fair work practices.

"The missing link here is something the Australian government needs to work more is addressing employers who are exploiting these students. So instead of focussing more and more on resources to students which is equally crucial, employers need to be educated or needs to be briefed and more, stricter regulation should be in place to address the issue."

Professor Jennifer Burn believes many working international students get in trouble because they don't understand the Australian legal system, their work rights, and visa conditions.

Working international students should keep a record of their employment situation.

"It's clear that many students don't know how to find out information about their work entitlements and even their pay rates they don't know about the requirements that work should be supported by a pay slip. There are many breaches of workplace law but you know, connecting more and being more willing to ask questions about these kinds of entitlements is very important."

 

The Fair Work Ombudsman's website provides information about pay conditions, working rights and entitlements in 26 languages.

A good place to start is the Fair Work Ombudsman's website which provides information about pay conditions, working rights and entitlements in 26 languages. Carey Trundle says working international students should keep a record of their employment situation.

"Keep a record of the hours you're working, know who you're working for, ask for your pay slip so you can check it. Definitely keep a record of the hours you're working because that assists you in knowing whether you're being paid for all the hours you're working."

CISA's Nina Khairina believes the 7-Eleven case could have far-reaching impacts on Australia's education export industry.  

"Australia should not wait for another high profile case to be exposed at the risk of international students perhaps choosing another country. More and more countries are looking towards increasing the number of intake for international students, and really, student experience should be at utmost priority for Australia right now if they do not want to lose out on getting the number of international students."

If you are concerned about your employment conditions, contact Fair Work.
You can also ring their translation and interpreting service on 131 450.

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