International student exploitation rife

At the start of the coronavirus crisis the prime minister told international students and migrant workers with medical training they had “opportunities” in Australia but for the rest it was “time to go home”  

A report has now found 88 percent of job advertisements targeting international student and migrant workers are offering salaries below minimum wage. Sydney University student, Iris Yao recounts the experience of working well below the legal wage

29 December 2020 | Iris Yao (Image: Syzmon Fischer)

Several years ago, shortly after I landed in Australia as an international university student, I took a job as a part-time waitress in Sydney’s Chinatown. My starting salary was $7 per hour—the restaurant’s manager told me this salary was only temporary and it would definitely increase over time.

It did not increase. I soon discovered if I made mistakes my boss would dock my already meagre wages. 

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy for me to see that I was being exploited. Given the poor conditions, and demands of my study, I quit two weeks into that job. At the time I only complained to friends and family, but it soon became obvious my situation was far from the exception.

It is happening all across the city, migrant workers are being underpaid by companies acting with impunity and complete disregard for workplace laws.

How have employers got away with this? The issue of wage exploitation of international students affects a small subset of the population who are not citizens but temporary residents. They are largely ignorant of labour laws and they have a small voice in the community.

It is not simply Chinese students but it’s a huge problem for Indian, South Asian, other Asian and South American students and backpackers who are often working for less than the minimum wage. In the COVID crisis many of them have had to rely on handouts from soup kitchens in order to eat.

A survey released earlier this month by Unions NSW found among job ads targeting specific ethnic groups 90.7% of ads in Vietnamese were below the minimum wage, as were 88.3% of Korean ads, 87.9% of Chinese, 86.3% of Nepalese, 83.9% of Portuguese and 76.4% of Spanish ads.

Australia relies on $36.7 billion in annual international student revenue; but the sole focus of mainstream media and politicians seems to be issues relating to individual universities and their over reliance on international student revenue or research cooperation with Chinese universities.

No voice for exploited workers

According to a Unions NSW report, Wage Theft: The Shadow Market, “The exploitation of temporary migrant workers in Australia is a common and known problem that appears to be endemic throughout Australian workplaces.

“This exploitation persists despite numerous government inquiries, legislative reforms and in 2019, the establishment of The Migrant Workers’ Taskforce whose recommendations are yet to be implemented.”

There are many workers being exploited in Australia who have no true voice or representation. Some are disadvantaged due to their lower socio-economic status, background from a minority or ethnic group, or even the so-called ‘outsiders’ including migrants and international students.

The ‘gig economy’ has risen to a point that at least 7 percent of all workers are in jobs controlled by major corporations like Uber, they have no workers’ rights and the law does not classify them as employees. International students make up a significant slice of food delivery riders.       

The impact on those of working as independent contractors, or in jobs where they are not even making the minimum wage, is far-reaching.

In the short-term, high prices of city living in Australia means either working far longer hours or significantly sacrificing living standards to a point no Australian should be made to accept. 

Longer-term, this will leave others in a ‘low paid work trap’ where they are forced to chase as many low paid hours as possible, sometimes in multiple jobs. This limits the ability to study or to undertake job training programs which would allow people to get ahead.  

International students have restrictions on the number of hours they can work, so wage exploitation almost becomes a death knell, denying them the opportunity to independently support themselves. This ‘self-support’ comes after international students already collectively plough billions of dollars into the Australian economy. 

The challenge for international students

International students have always been outsiders to the Australian system. We often lack relevant information but are also weak in language skills and find it hard to secure jobs above the minimum wage.

And when faced with wage exploitation, not only may we not be able to protect ourselves through a legal system completely foreign in our knowledge; sometimes we may even fail to recognise that wage exploitation exists.

This is happening right now. Students workers are hired without employment agreements and those who accept cash in hand agreements are effectively trading away their workplace rights before they even begin.

Despite Australia being a largely export reliant economy, and being a nation of immigrants, many Australian firms are reluctant to hire international students, instead favouring Australian citizens or residents.

This leaves international students being largely unable to work in their preferred industries or even to work to their strengths at all. Quite often they are left only with offers of unpaid internships in industries relevant to their field of study. Instead, many accept low paid work as some income is better than no money at all.

A systemic problem

The aforementioned factors and characteristics combine to make workplace exploitation a systemic problem.

Wage exploitation of international students, and other migrant groups, is not happening because they are incompetent individuals, nor because of individual businesses who choose to act this way.

It is systemic exploitation because governments do not properly enforce the law; companies reliant on itinerant workers have low wages priced into their business models and know they will not be scrutinized by bodies such as the Fair Work Commission; and, ultimately, international students having no real say in the issue.  

Iris Yao is a third year Arts student at the University of Sydney and editor of the university’s student newspaper Honi Soit.