International students learn first hand the meaning of wage swindling
International students in Australia pay big dollars to study at Australian secondary and tertiary institutions. The fees and subsidiary money that international students bring in to this country are substantial.
According to an OECD report in 2015, Australia has the world’s second highest proportion of international to local students after Luxemburg with 16% of Australia’s tertiary students from overseas. In 1994 international student enrolment was 93,722. In 2017, such enrolments had increased to 792,422. The international students come from many different countries, but the largest number come from China.
International students are in theory required by the federal government to be financially self-sufficient as a condition of being granted a visa. According to research from the University of Sydney Business School, international student visa applications must provide evidence of “financial capacity” such as funds sufficient to cover travel to Australia, course costs, and living costs of approximately $20,000 per year. Alternatively, they can provide evidence that they or their parents earn at least $60,000 Australian per year.
Apart from those from very wealthy families back home, most international students have to find work to supplement expenses to live day to day in Australia. Studies from the University of Sydney and the Fair Work Ombudsman demonstrate that international students account for a large number of low skilled workers in poorly unionised industries such as cafes, restaurants, cleaning, farm work and hospitality.
So although their primary purpose in coming to Australia is to study, many of them also form part of the working class in Australia during their student years, as do many other local students.
A 2017 University of Sydney Business College research paper “Why International Student Workers In Australia Tolerate Underpayment” found that 73.5% of Chinese international students in Sydney working in restaurants and cafes were being paid less than the award minimum wage. A massive 43% were paid $12 per hour or less.
The researchers found that this massive wage swindling usually went unreported not because the international students were unaware they were being paid less than they should have been according to capitalism’s own industrial law system, but because there was too much to lose if they complained.
Fear of being sacked and not having enough income could lead to being unable to pay the rent and/or household bills. Or even something worse; being reported by the swindling employer to the Immigration Department for breaching some aspect of their visa requirement.
The most common reason given for not reporting or pursuing underpayment of wages was fear of being reported to Immigration for working more than the 20 hour per week limit during student term times.
Many international students are either forced by their employers to break the 20 hour limit through threat of being sacked if they refuse, or they take on a second job for cash in hand in order to scrape up enough income to cover their cost of living while studying here.
The Ultimate Wage Swindle – Unpaid Work
Recently I heard first hand from some international students about their working experience in Australia which more than verified the research findings of the University of Sydney mentioned above.
The students from a small Asian country lived in overcrowded student accommodation in the outer suburbs of a capital city. The overcrowding helped them with affordable rent. They heard from their peers that work was available cleaning at a local private school not far from where they lived. They arrived at the school and met a cleaner who told them he had a contract with the cleaning company who in turn had the cleaning contract to clean the school. All they had to do was turn up each day during the week at the same time and he would pay them $18 per hour for four hours cleaning per night. Unknown to the students, the legal award minimum for a casual cleaner working in the evening was about $28-$29 per hour.
After about two months, the students had not been paid a cent. The promise of payment by their “employer” was wearing thin. The plight of these student cleaners came to the attention of some of the teachers and word got back to the school principal that something was amiss. The cleaners were paid about the equivalent of four weeks’ pay at the $18 per hour rate. The cleaning company with the contract with the school denied knowing about the plight of the cleaners, but did admit that one of “their cleaners” was actually a franchisee. Then the school and the cleaning company colluded to get rid of the franchisee and also the swindled international student cleaners and replaced them with directly employed cleaners employed by the cleaning company. It is unlikely that the swindled international students will recover their lost wage entitlements
They were not members of any union which is not surprising given they had no wages at all for two months and were quite possibly working two jobs taking their weekly hours to over their student visa limit of 20 hours per week. Therefore they just move on and hope that next time they find more work, at least the wage swindling “employer” pays them rather than having no pay at all for extended periods of time.
Change The Rules – Change The System
The ACTU 2018 Congress policy document, “Social and Economic Justice – Temporary Migration – Changing Our System” contains some worthwhile short-term demands on government regarding international students’ rights at work. These include legislation to compel employers to release international students for the purposes of their study and stop employers from forcing them to work more than the permitted 20 hours per week during term times.
However the policy document is silent on the issue of whether international students should be legally able to work more than 20 hours per week. If international students are legally able to work more than 20 hours per week, they are less likely to be used by capitalists in labour supply chains as a pool of even cheaper labour than the legal award minimum labour supply, and then blackmailed with threats of being reported to Immigration “Thought Police” if they speak up about it.
Removing the 20 hour per week limit should contribute in a small way to the general working class struggle against the decline in real terms of wage levels in Australia because there will be less likelihood of an overseas student labour pool willing to risk working illegal hours at extremely low wage rates way below the supposed legal minimum.
Will lifting on the 20 hour limit result in overseas students being more likely to join a union and being part of the general working class struggle to Change The Rules as a step towards changing the system?
That remains to be seen and will vary depending on a number of factors, not least being the organising and campaign capacity of unions.
Grass roots campaigns such as the Clean Start campaign included a large proportion of overseas students as active union members, some of whom became respected leaders within their unions and communities and fought alongside Australian born workers and Australian born students working part-time.
Eliminating the restriction on the number of ordinary hours of work for particular types of workers (in this case overseas students) should be a unifying factor among workers and make the capitalists divide and conquer tactics within the working class more difficult.
The ACTU and affiliated unions have the opportunity to build an inclusive, independent working class movement for all workers, including international students by campaigning to scrap the 20 hour per week limit on international student work.