A 5000 strong protest against racist attacks on Indian students was held in Melbourne on May 31. The demonstration spilled over into the early hours of the next morning and has catapulted the issue of racism against international students into both the Australian and Indian media.
Indian students are fed up with being attacked and discriminated against. Protests have since spread to Sydney and some have been held in India. This has embarrassed the government and Kevin Rudd has been forced to personally speak to the Indian Prime Minister to repair relations. This is because education is Australia’s third biggest export industry and generates almost $16 billion dollars annually. About $2 billion comes from Indian students alone.
On top of the exorbitant education fees extracted from international students, they are also super-exploited by employers and landlords. It is clear that the government, education providers, employers and landlords all see international students as little more than cash cows. To top things off they receive no assistance from the state and in some states they are not even entitled to concession fares on public transport!
The police have also shown that they care little for the safety of international students. Instead they are more concerned with protecting those who are exploiting them the most. One striking example has been the dispute between UNITE, the fast food workers union, and the convenience store giant 7-Eleven.
When UNITE has protested outside 7-Eleven stores against international students being underpaid, the police have arrived within minutes to ensure 7-Eleven’s trade is not hindered and their profits are protected. But when international students are racially abused or attacked the police rarely respond and often do not even follow up on complaints. This shows that the police represent interests that are opposed to those of ordinary students and that more police on the streets will not solve the problems.
In order to provide a level of safety some students have started to congregate at train stations after dark to protect each other. The idea of defence committees needs to be supported but it needs to be done in an open, democratic and professional manner. Otherwise the police and the government will label the practice as ‘vigilantism’ and try to isolate the students from the broader community.
While State and Federal governments have condemned the attacks, nothing concrete has been done to address the many problems that international students face. One of the ways international students are discriminated against is by having less than full work rights in Australia. There is a 20 hour work restriction on all international student visas. At the same time many international students are forced into low paid jobs like working in convenience stores or driving taxis.
Most of these jobs pay below the minimum wage which forces the students to work more than 20 hours just to make ends meet. This means they have to put up with low wages or complain and risk being deported because they have breeched their visa conditions. It is win-win for the bosses.
Another factor is that many of the low paid jobs that international students are forced to take require them to work late night shifts or to travel vast distances on public transport. The fact that most train stations are not staffed means that their safety is further compromised.
It is clear that international students are discriminated against in every aspect of their lives. This is contributing to the idea that they should be treated as second class citizens and it promotes racist attitudes. The solution for international students is to keep up the protests but at the same time fight the exploitation that is dished out by employers, landlords, colleges and governments alike. Getting organised through unions and linking up with the broader labour movement is the first step to winning equal rights and fighting racism.
By Kirk Leonard