Home Articles Feature: Employer exploitation of foreign students in Australia is rife

Feature: Employer exploitation of foreign students in Australia is rife


The industry contributed export earnings last year of $16.6 billion, $1.3 billion higher than 2008, but students still have little influence when it comes to making policies that benefit them.

Businesses that employ students do. The peak body for cafes, Restaurant and Catering Australia, made one of the 25 employer submissions to the Fair Pay Commission’s most recent minimum wage review.

The commission decided not to raise the minimum wage.

The grail

George Street, Sydney

Conditions can improve once you secure permanent residency (PR) but the field is crowded. There were 115,000 permanent skilled migration places available for 2008-09. There were over 543,000 international students in Australia in 2008.

Last year 23 percent of students in NSW and 33 percent in Victoria were internationals.

Shu Qing Tan, 25, from the small Malaysian town of Teluk Intan, is a success story. She completed a commerce/law degree at the University of Melbourne and found a job some months after finishing her exams in 2007.

“Obviously, I can’t speak for the rest of the population, but to me it was pretty easy,” she says.

She worked part-time for six months and full-time for business publication BRW, during which time she secured PR, then at a community legal centre.

Another Malaysian, Sharinder Sidhu, 26, from Kuala Lumpur, has been “extremely lucky”. She got a casual job soon after completing a Bachelor of Medical Science, majoring in biochemistry, then found full-time work.

She graduated at the end of 2005 and, having secured PR, works in Telstra’s Human Resources Department in Melbourne.

Not all Chinese students experience bad treatment at the hands of employers. Annie Zhang completed the Bachelor of Mathematics and Computer Science in the early 1990s and since 1998 has worked in IT at Sydney University.

“To me, now, I don’t like study because it’s a struggle. We pay high fees and of course we need to work as well. Working three jobs at once and [getting] everything going was hard.”

As a student she didn’t have much choice in jobs. “Waitressing most of the time. Running around, doing different restaurants.”

Finding a “proper job” is “very hard” for people who come as international students, says Shaun Yeoh, 23.

“A lot of my friends, some of them even graduated more than a year, they still can’t find a job,” he says.

Shaun was born in Malaysia and is a naturalised Australian. He has completed a bachelor’s degree in nanotechnology at the University of Technology, Sydney. He sources clients for Hugh Denison Consulting in Sydney and works weekends at Coles while studying Japanese at TAFE.

Some of his friends come from China and “don’t have very good English”, he says. “It is very hard to impress the interviewers if your English is not good.”

“I think I can do pretty well in a translation job in a government agency,” says Jessica Wang. “But [I’m] not sure [about a] journalistic job because I was not born here. It is hard for international students to have the same language level as local students.”

Another obstacle is the ‘bridging visa’, an instrument that allows foreigners to “remain lawful” if they do not hold a “substantive visa”, according to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

“Some of them already submitted [applications for] PR, but it takes [a] long process, about six to 12 months, a long queue,” says Shaun.

But people on a bridging visa still need to eat and pay rent.

“I tried to register [with] recruitment agencies,” says Andie. “But I found there is one option which is the visa type. I am holding [a] bridging visa. There is no option for me. Only PR or citizen[ship] or student visa.”

Jessica hasn’t tried to get a job at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, her ideal among Australia’s workplaces, as applicants need a visa entitling them to work for the duration of the job.

Edwin Telzer, 30, says companies need to weight up the risks involved in hiring a student on a bridging visa.

“Are they ready to take that gamble and hire an international student who’s got a bridging visa and doesn’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow? Most companies would not take the risk.”

In July, Edwin completed a master’s degree in environmental engineering. He has a bachelor of civil engineering degree from India and works four days a week at Coles.

“It is not something that I love, but I’m forced to [do it] because I have to pay my rent.”

“It is a financial crisis worldwide, so you can’t actually be fussy,” advises Shu Qing Tan. “You have to be a bit more flexible.”