Foreign students are being subjected to high levels of wage theft, according to a new report from the University of NSW and UTS.
Researchers found nothing had changed since a landmark survey four years ago revealed foreign students were some of this country’s most exploited workers and the COVID-19 recession could make it worse.
“There is the potential for a real perfect storm,” report co-author and UTS Law associate professor Laurie Berg told 7.30.
“Increased exploitation, where international students are more desperate for the income, employers might be trying to cut costs, and jobs are more scarce.
“It’s a worrying sign for Australia’s tertiary institutions, who are already battling to regain dropping foreign student numbers.”
$7-an-hour restaurant job
Sydney University arts/politics student Iris Yao took a job in a restaurant to help pay her way.
“My parents are working very hard to pay my tuition fees and living expenses,” she told 7.30.
“I thought I needed to do something to relieve their financial burden.”
As a waitress she was “cleaning the kitchen, washing dishes, ordering the food” – all for $7 in cash an hour.
That is less than a third of the minimum wage for casuals over 20 years old.
“They told me if I can do better they will pay me more money but obviously I think it is a lie,” she said.
Dr Berg said that was not unusual.
“Unfortunately cases like Iris’s are common for international students, who accept the underpayment because that’s the job that’s available to them,” he said.
“And they are reluctant to come forward.”
The visas of international students allow them to work up to 40 hours a fortnight.
The researchers surveyed 6,000 students from 103 countries and half of them reported they were paid less than the minimum wage.
More than a quarter said they were paid $12 an hour or less.
Students from China were the worst off, with 54 per cent grossly underpaid.
Not just underpaid, vulnerable to worse exploitation
Paula came to Australia from Brazil to study business leadership in Melbourne, but claimed she was subjected to sexual harassment in her workplace.
“He was asking for kisses and about my underwear,” she told 7.30.
“I was rejecting the sexual advances and I was asking for my money [for wages owed].
“He tried punishing me – threatening to give my position to this new guy.”
Paula left that job but said she felt pressured not to complain.
“He said things like he was important and he has connections [and] he kept threatening to call [the Department of] Immigration,” she said.
Her experience is not rare.
Talita, also from Brazil, claimed a senior worker tried to kiss her and offered to pay her for sex on a night out.
She complained to her employer.
“He tried to kiss me, he bit my lip,” she said.
“I just tried to run away and he followed me and tried to talk and say, ‘You said that you need money I can give you money but be with me.'”
She lost her job and went back to Brazil.
She has since returned to Melbourne, determined to realise her dream of becoming a chef.
Getting cash back is rare
7.30 spoke to several other students who were too afraid to tell their stories publicly.
“It’s shocking,” Dr Berg said.
“I mean, there really is a cycle of impunity that keeps international students silent.
“These international students, who are far from home, often alone, not familiar with the Australian legal system and, unfortunately, are extremely vulnerable to employer exploitation.”
Chinese civil engineering student Jonathan is one of those rare cases for whom the system worked.
“I was owed about $6000, because I wasn’t paid penalty rates,” he told 7.30.
“It took two months, but I got a settlement I was very happy with.”
But another Chinese student, Jin, is fighting to be paid three years’ worth of penalty rates she claimed she was owed by her employer.
“I’m owed $10,000,” she told 7.30.
She worked for a promotions company in a duty free shop at Sydney Airport.
She told the Fair Work Commission she did the same job as retail workers employed directly by the retailer, including ringing up sales, but was paid less.
She said she should be paid the same and be under the same award rates.
However, her employer said its employees were not governed by an award and were not entitled to penalty rates.
Fair Work told Jin it could not investigate her claim or those of 16 other employees.
In a letter to them, Fair Work wrote: “My review revealed a range of complex legal issues relating to employment award coverage or award-free employees.
“To determine award coverage requires months of work, including multiple site visits and interviews.
“In this current COVID climate, I cannot conduct site visits or interviews.
“Also the business has closed and may not reopen in the future.”
Jin’s former employer told 7.30 they paid staff in accordance with the law.