The International Students and Wage Theft in Australia report was conducted in April and May 2019, and recorded responses from more than 5,000 students.
“The workplace exploitation of any student is abhorrent and must be called out”
Key findings of the report were that 77% of students were paid below the minimum casual hourly wage and one in four students received less than half the minimum wage in their lowest paid job.
Over the last three years, the Australian Fair Work Ombudsman has tried to improve conditions for international students. However, the report said, in some areas, the situation remains unchanged since 2016.
“Our findings show that tinkering around the edges of the problem is having little effect,” said associate professor Bassina Farbenblum from UNSW Law, who co-led the report.
“Wage theft is endemic for migrant workers and indeed many Australian workers in certain industries.
“To seriously disrupt wage theft in Australia, we need urgent reforms to labour enforcement and student visa conditions, as well as a new wage recovery tribunal.”
Phil Honeywood, chief executive of IEAA said that the Fair Work Ombudsman’s campaign had been “effective” and noted that there has been stronger regulatory enforcement by the government since 2016.
“The workplace exploitation of any student, be they domestic or international, is abhorrent and must be called out,” he told The PIE News.
“The campaign has enlisted the proactive support of the Council for International Students in Australia and other student representative bodies.”
A spokesperson from the Australian government’s Department of Education, Skills and Employment, told The PIE that significant action has been taken to address migrant worker exploitation in recent years.
This includes providing new and additional funding for the Fair Work Ombudsman and expanding and enhancing the tools and advice available to migrant workers (including international students).
“Proposals to introduce new penalties for the worst forms of worker underpayment are being progressed as part of the ‘Compliance and Enforcement Working Group’ – part of the Government’s Industrial Relations Reform working group process – which had a productive first meeting yesterday,” the spokesperson said.
As well as showing that students are being underpaid, the report also found disturbing evidence of students experiencing sexual harassment, accidents and injuries at work.
Some students were required to work very long hours and faced being fired if they complained to their employer.
Associate professor Laurie Berg from UTS Law, who co-led the report with Farbenblum, said that almost two-thirds of international students didn’t seek information or help for problems at work.
“They suffered in silence, often because of visa concerns or fear of job loss. Our findings confirm many who complained were in fact sacked.”
“Their visa concerns are also valid – there’s nothing to stop the labour regulator sharing information with immigration authorities if a student has worked more hours than her visa allows,” she added.
Berg warned that employers exploit students’ immigration vulnerability knowing they won’t complain for fear of being reported to the Immigration Department.
Honeywood told The PIE that another challenge faced by international students in Australia is culture exploitation.
“This usually involves a small business employer recruiting a student from their own culture and language background. The employer promises that they will act as the student’s de facto “uncle” or “aunty”.
“In reality, such situations usually involve “off the books” cash jobs, excessive illegal hours and lower rates of pay,” he said.
Honeywood explained that students feel compromised when reporting their situation to the appropriate authorities. He said that every study destination country has voiced similar concerns to this scenario.
“Nobody has documented the extent of this crisis”
Since the survey was undertaken, many international students have lost their casual jobs because of social-distancing measures implemented due to the pandemic.
Farbenblum explained that when restrictions are eased international students will likely be even more vulnerable to exploitation due to their highly precarious financial status and desperation for work in the tightly constrained labour market.
“Nobody has documented the extent of this crisis so this week we launch a nationwide survey of temporary migrants in Australia to do just this.”
A survey about the wellbeing of temporary migrants in Australia, the Temporary Migrant Covid Impact survey, is open until July 20 this year to anyone who was in Australia on a temporary visa on March 1.