By Mehroz Siraj
Exploitation against international students at workplaces is continuing across Australia despite the new laws and immigration reforms enacted by the federal government and parliament.
Commercial hospitality, cleaning and retail have been identified by relevant experts as the sectors of the job market where exploitation of international students has been taking place.
“We are finding that international students working as cleaners tend to be more likely to be suffering from bullying and harassment than other cleaners doing the same work,” Jess Walsh, the Victorian Secretary of the organization, United Voices Union (UVU), told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) last week.
UVU is a growing union movement that provides legal counselling and support for international students who have been victims of abuse and underpayment of salaries at their workplaces or human trafficking.
International students working as cleaners were routinely being underpaid, Jess said.
Analysis by counselling experts and background research undertaken by Australian Affairs shows that in most cases, international students are being paid as less as $7 an hour, which is well below the minimum recommended wages anywhere in Australia.
“To say that these people are paid below the award wages, would be a bit generous,” Australian Workers Union’s Alan Howe told the ABC.
The laborious work that these foreign citizens are being made to do for ridiculously low wages is akin to modern day indentured labour and slavery, Howe said.
According to Jess, Australian workplace laws do not discriminate between workers who are citizens and those who come to Australia from other countries, experts say.
According to many provisions in the Fair Work Act and the immigration reforms that have been initiated by the Gillard government, international students can come forward to complain about racism and workplace exploitation.
Australia’s anti-racism and fair work laws guarantee fair pay and good working conditions for all immigrants regardless of their legal working rights as mentioned on their visa documents, experts say.
However, due to a number of fears and phobias that engulf Australia’s international student community, most victims of workplace bullying and exploitation do not ever speak up, according to Jess.
“When they go to their employer and ask to be paid for their extra hours, employers often refuse and then threaten to report them to immigration,” Jess informed.
Underpayment of wages and non-payment of salaries and penalty rates for the extra hours worked are also part of the overall workplace exploitation puzzle, according to Jess.
For international students who come to Australia from the war-torn and poverty stricken regions of Asia and Africa, the threat of being reported to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) is a serious case of workplace bullying.
The federal government recognizes this as well.
Last year, the then immigration minister, Chris Bowen, and the federal government initiated changes to the student visa program by allowing more flexible work arrangements for overseas students.
It also revoked the laws that made it mandatory for the immigration department officials to cancel the visas of overseas students who were caught working for over 20 hours a week while their courses were in session.
The bullying however continues.
Cases of international students being victims of workplace bullying and exploitation have been reported previously as well and some cases have been dealt in court.
In April 2011, a presiding judge at the Melbourne Magistrates Court had found that a 7-Eleven franchisee had underpaid six of its staff, who were Zimbabwean and Indian nationals international students, by about $150,000 over four years.
Judicial proceedings had revealed that these students were not given paid leaves and were paid around $12 an hour.
The legal minimum wage rates in Victoria at that time were $16.31.
While these international students got their lost wealth reimbursed due to the court actions, other international students fighting workplace bullying along with poverty in Australia have not been so lucky.
In November 2012, the UVU had released a report that revealed that international students working with cleaning companies, who were contracted by big shopping centre builders like Westfield, were being underpaid and exploited.
In August last year, the University of Newcastle released statistics that revealed that over 160 cases of workplace related abuses were reported by the institution’s international students to the university’s student union.
Asian students and immigrants were disproportionately more likely to be bullied and discriminated against in the workplace as against their European and North American counterparts, the university’s report said.