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Safeguarding international students at work

“Exploitation among international students is no longer a peculiar phenomenon,” says Nina Khairina, national president of the Council of International Students Australia. “It is almost to the point where it seems normal.”

Convenience store chain 7-Eleven has been involved in a highly-publicised scandal involving international student work rights. Photo: Anton Crace.

There are several governmental and third party organisations fighting labour exploitation

Khairina’s comments about exploitation in the workplace represent a serious problem for an international education industry that is aiming to improve the overall study experience for foreign students. 

International students play an integral role within both Australian and New Zealand workforces, taking jobs largely in the hospitality, retail, construction and cleaning industries. Working while studying is an opportunity for students to make some extra money to cover additional expenses; a chance to interact with the wider community; and a means to get much needed work experience and develop soft skills before starting their careers.

“Exploitation among international students is no longer a peculiar phenomenon”

But as Khairina points out, when it goes wrong, working while studying can be a situation which creates problems for students: their limited knowledge of workplace rights, cultural misunderstandings and, at times, desperation for money leads to exploitation so extreme in some cases that it resembles modern day slavery.

Mostly out of sight from the public eye, despite several highly publicised incidents involving convenience store chain 7-Eleven and Australian department store Myer, well-established exploitation strategies are a pervasive problem which threatens to damage the reputations of both Australia and New Zealand’s international education industries.

While a programme is in session, students in New Zealand can work up to 20 hours part-time per week if they are in their final two years of secondary schooling, a tertiary programme with a minimum two years duration, or in an English language course that meets certain requirements. During holiday periods, students may work full-time, while postgraduate students can work full-time throughout the year.

Australia similarly allows part-time work for appropriately aged students in secondary school, tertiary education or English education while their programme is in session, but students must not work more than 40 hours a fortnight. Working hour allowances for coursework-based master’s and doctorate courses are both uncapped, as too are all other students when their course is on break.

Bare Necessities

Students and government officials have different interpretations of the purpose behind working while studying.

“The ability to work while studying can be a good experience for an international student”

Both Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection, and Immigration New Zealand are clear: working while studying should be treated as a cultural and career opportunity.

“The ability to work while studying can be a good experience for an international student, especially if they find work in an area that is related to their study,” says INZ general manager, Stephen Dunstan. “The ability to work part-time while studying also connects international students to the New Zealand labour market context.”

According to both departments, work rights aren’t meant for students to pay tuition or living costs, and international students are required to either prove or declare their financial capacity to cover both while studying before they can receive a visa. But according to Khairina, the belief that students seek work for cultural experiences is less than pragmatic.

Accommodation shortages driving up rent prices, lack of transport concessions and rising living costs all contribute to additional spending while studying in both Australia and New Zealand. Khairina says money from work becomes a necessity for many international students.

And she adds that financial jams aren’t the only situations that can lead to a student being exploited.

International students can lack awareness of their workplace rights, often being told they are entitled to far less than they are; they fear deportation or inability to find a job; or an employer confiscates their passport and uses it as a bartering tool to get them to undertake work to earn it back.

If you don’t get paid or you’re underpaid, it means that your tenancy becomes an issue”

The dangers of visa breach

In Australia, Redfern Legal Centre’s international students’ service solicitor, Sean Stimson, compares the conditions of some international students to slavery.

Stimson says while the traditional model of underpayment coupled with cash-in-hand wages still exists, a new and arguably more serious evolution of that model has emerged. Now, underpayment or non-payment is used to blackmail students.

“There’s a knock-on effect that happens with underpayment or non-payment. Students have a job to pay for their accommodation. If you don’t get paid or you’re underpaid, it means that your tenancy becomes an issue; you have the potential to become homeless,” he says.

What’s being done?

There are several governmental and third party organisations fighting labour exploitation.

New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, through its Labour Inspectorate, and INZ have been particularly active in working together to investigate employment law breaches.

“The Labour Inspectorate encourages anyone concerned about their employment situation, or the employment situation of someone they know, to call its contact centre where their concerns will be handled in a safe environment,” says Mason.

Concerns raised through this service have resulted in heavy fines for several employers, including one instance of a New Zealand restaurant forced to pay NZ$91,000 in law breaches and wage arrears.

INZ itself also provides extensive information to international students once a visa is issued.

“There is a wealth of information available for students coming to New Zealand,” says Dunstan at INZ. Websites such as NZ Study+Work, New Zealand Now, NZ Ready and the New to New Zealand Facebook page were all developed to empower students to recognise exploitation before it occurs, he adds.

Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman similarly partners with DIBP to investigate exploitative practices and enforce penalties. The record fine went to a Brisbane 7-Eleven franchise, which was forced to pay over A$400,000 for underpaying workers.

Third-party organisation RLC, which provides free-of-charge legal services to the New South Wales community, and United Voice, which has authored several reports exposing exploitative companies, both work closely with international students to fight exploitation, with United Voice also providing information to help students avoid these situations.

“We really want to ensure students have a great education here and an overall great experience”

But, despite the good work of these organisations, resources are stretched.

StudyNSW director Peter Mackey points out, however, that his organisation has limited funding to continue its support. To ensure their few resources go as far as possible, United Voice and RLC and other organisations battling exploitation are starting to focus their efforts on on thwarting it at the root.

Future Moves

After revising its Pastoral Care for International Students Code of Practice earlier this year, New Zealand is looking to further cement its commitment to positive student experiences with the development of the International Student Wellbeing Strategy, a cross-department approach to the industry’s responsibilities to international students.

“For a couple of years now, we’ve been trying to work out a way we can look at it from a student perspective rather than a government perspective,” says John Goulter, general manager of stakeholders, communications and intelligence at international education peak body, Education New Zealand.

The strategy, he says, seeks to cover the whole student life cycle with four main points: quality education, economic wellbeing, health and safety, and inclusion. Workplace exploitation will be addressed by the strategy.

Goulter, like many others within both the New Zealand and Australian international education industries, is very clear why he is undertaking work to protect international students from workplace exploitation.

“We really want to ensure students have a great education here and an overall great experience. Anybody who undermines that will see that there are consequences.”

  • This is an abridged version of an article which first appeared in The PIE Review edition 12.

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