A recent report by the Victorian Government’s Overseas Student Experience Taskforce has concluded that visa restrictions on international students are contributing to their exploitation in the workplace.
The Taskforce, established in September last year, investigated key issues relating to the experiences of international students studying in Victoria, an industry worth $4.45 billion in 2007-08.
The investigation was undeniably prompted by recent high-profile campaigns bringing attention to the lack of affordable housing for students and the wholesale exploitation of international student-workers. One of these campaigns, organised by UNITE (union for fast-food and retail workers), involved the exposure of widespread underpayment and extreme bullying of workers in 7-Eleven convenience stores across the state, the vast majority being international students.
UNITE’s submission to the Taskforce argued that restricting the working capability of international students- known as the ’20-hour rule’- has allowed employers in the food and retail industries to force illegal working conditions on these workers. This includes massive underpayment and instances of no payment, no penalty rates and extensive working hours with no breaks. Attempts by these workers to demand their right to minimum wages and conditions have been curtailed by threats of deportation and other bullying from employers.
The Taskforce accepted this, stating that many international students “need to earn more money than is possible in 20 hours in order to meet the cost of living here. The consequence is often that the overseas students are at risk of workplace exploitation as they fear they will be reported to the immigration authorities and then deported if they seek to enforce their rights.”
Despite these difficult conditions, UNITE has managed to organise groups of 7-Eleven workers and has pressured the Workplace Ombudsman to launch an investigation into the employment practices of the convenience store giant. So far this investigation has found massive breaches of the law and UNITE’s work has managed to improve wages and conditions in many of the 7-Eleven stores in central Melbourne, including back-pay for workers underpaid over a period of months or even years!
While the Taskforce report and the Ombudsman’s investigation represent a step forward for international student-workers, the problems remain widespread. In the interest of systematically eliminating the exploitation of international students in the workplace, the Socialist Party calls for the abolition of the 20-hour rule. We also encourage students (domestic and international) to join their union and to make complaints against employers who are underpaying and bullying their workers. Ultimately it is the workers themselves who need to get organised and fight for decent wages and conditions through their union, otherwise this exploitation will continue.
To read the UNITE submission click here
By Mel Gregson