International Students Battle Workplace Exploitation in Australia

The union covering hospitality workers and cleaners in Australia has launched a campaign to expose unscrupulous employers who exploit international students.

Australian Network News, by Kate Arnott for Newsline, 22 October 2013

United Voice says the students are among the most exploited when it comes to the worst paid jobs in Melbourne.

"We've heard stories in the hospitality industry of international students being paid as little as 7 or 8 dollars (AUS) an hour," said Jess Walsh, the Victorian secretary for United Voice.

"Now in Australia the minimum wage is just over 16 dollars an hour,"

Dr Mark Zirnsak from the Justice and International Mission with the Uniting Church said there are cases where overseas students working as cleaners have neither met their employers nor seen a pay slip.

A recent union survey of 200 international students found one quarter received 10 dollars an hour or less and 60 per cent earned less than the minimum wage.

As well, United Voice says students reported being subjected to discrimination and abuse.

"What can happen is a group of international students perhaps Chinese students or Indian students might start working in a building and they find they are systematically treated differently from the other cleaners who are doing the same work," said Jess Walsh from United Voice.

"Perhaps given some of the tougher jobs perhaps reprimanded more severely if they make a mistake."

Financial struggles

As part of their visa conditions, international students are allowed to work a maximum of 20 hours per week.

Many international students need to work to support themselves while they study, but the union says their vulnerability means they are taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers.

"We recognise that many of those caught in this situation find it difficult to make complaints or to go to the authorities or to stand up or even to get involved in union activity because of the fear of retribution against them," said Dr Zirnsak from the Uniting Church.

One student, who did not want to be identified told the Australia Network's Newsline program, he found it difficult to find a job that would help him pay his rent.

He came to Australia in 2009 and found it difficult to get work to help him pay the rent and had to settle for a $AUS10 an hour job as cleaner.

He eventually found a cleaning job for $17 an hour - a big improvement on his dishwashing wage, but was still $7 an hour less than a city-wide agreement for office cleaners.

Uniting Voice says this student and many others like him, are employed by cleaning subcontractors, who are notorious for illegal underpaying.

Fighting back

Companies using those subcontractors are increasingly finding themselves the target of noisy protests.

In September, United Voice raided 13 office buildings in Melbourne and found subcontractors used in 9 of them were paying international student cleaners sub-standard wages.

Some companies have already been taken to task by workplace tribunals and fined in court.

But the union and its supporters says repeat offending is common and catching the companies out is not easy.

Click here to read the original report at Australian Network News.

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