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Fair Work strikes deal to prevent automatic study visa cancellation

Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman has announced a new campaign and internal strategy to combat workplace exploitation of international students.

Retail and the service industry are traditional favourites for student workers.Retail and the service industry are traditional favourites for student workers. Photo: Pexels

"A common method of exploitation has been to coerce a student into working over the 40-hours per fortnight permitted"

The campaign, which was announced last month in an open letter from Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James, seeks to prevent students from being exploited within the workplace by educating them on their rights, provide opportunities for those currently within exploitative work situations to report their employer, and encourage more international students to take up the services of FWO.

“We know that international students can be reluctant to speak out when something is wrong, making them particularly vulnerable to exploitation.”

“The number of international students reporting issues to the FWO is disproportionately low compared to other categories of visa holders, despite the fact that international students represent a significant proportion of overseas visitors with work rights,” James said in a statement.

“We know that international students can be reluctant to speak out when something is wrong, making them particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

“This is especially the case when students think that seeking assistance will damage future job prospects or lead to the cancellation of their visa,” she added.

Key amongst the initiatives announced was an arrangement between FWO and visa-agency DIBP to no longer automatically cancel a student’s visa if they have violated its terms during an instance of workplace exploitation.

A common method of exploitation has been to coerce a student into working over the 40-hours per fortnight permitted under a study visa and then threaten to report them to DIBP if they do not accept lower wages or longer hours, preventing many students from reporting exploitation.

The campaign comes after research commissioned by FWO found many international students were not aware of their workplace rights, with some reporting they were subjected to “intimidation by their employers, who threatened to deport or “blacklist” them for future work if they complained”.

“[Students] don’t know their rights and they get exploited easily, especially the new arrivals.”

James said the research found 60% of international students in Australia thought reporting a workplace issue would result in the situation remaining the same or worsening.

CISA national public relations officer Arjun Mathilakath Madathil said his organisation welcomed the campaign and FWO’s agreement with DIBP.

“We’ve been in constant contact with FWO and DIBP regarding the same issue and regarding accommodation exploitation of international students who come to Australia. They don’t know their rights and they get exploited easily, especially the new arrivals,” he told The PIE News.

Madathil added a lack of cultural awareness in Australia, as well as students providing inaccurate information between one another exacerbated the issue.

“Most of the students come from different cultures and different countries… it’s completely different from Australia and when they come here, they don’t know the culture, they don’t know who to approach, they don’t know if what they’re doing is right,” he said.

“They hear from their peers and they think: ‘okay, this [exploitative arrangement] is the best we are getting. This has been going on for some time now so we might as well do this’.”

Employers taking advantage of students’ lack of awareness was also a major concern, according to Madathil.

In one instance he said an international student was told by their employer that they were allowed to work 14-hours a day for less than minimum wage.

“That’s like sweatshop conditions. I really don’t expect that in Australia which is so developed and has so many work rights. You can’t really expect that in Australia,” he said.

There have been several highly publicised instances of workplace exploitation of international students in Australia recently, leading to Redfern Legal Centre to propose changes to Section 499 of the immigration act earlier this year. to also remove automatic visa cancellation. The FWO and DIBP arrangement is not related to that proposal.

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