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

Feature: Employer exploitation of foreign students in Australia is rife

Foreign students often battle to find work during, and after, their studies

However, as Matthew da Silva and Mingming Feng report, Australia’s educational institutions have far more appetite for international student tuition than local employers have for hiring these students as legitimate employees, causing young foreigners to reconsider Australia as their educational destination of choice.

Andie Feng got what she thought was an internship at a Sydney commercial Chinese-language radio station in December 2007.

Andie is 26 and came to Australia from the Chinese province of Sichuan. She learned about the radio station through a friend.

“She took me there, [and] the boss of the radio station interviewed me. He referred me to the director to get a chance to start hosting programmes.

“During the interview, the director did not mention the salary. I just wanted to do something I liked. Money was not that important for me at that moment.”

The director told her that if she could do the internship, she would be offered a job. But she received nothing until 2009, when she got $10 in cash for hosting an hour-long program.

The Fair Work Ombudsman says that working for over a year without pay is “almost certainly” illegal.

A spokesperson says that they cannot envisage a vocational placement that permits such an extended period of continuous, unpaid, work-based training.

The case shows just the tip of the iceberg.

Another Chinese graduate seeking permanent residency, Jessica Wang*, was “totally screwed” after landing an administration and translation job at a Chinese immigration agency in Sydney.

“I was not paid for the first three days because he told me that [the first] three days were observation days.”

Jessica worked 40 hours in the first week with two days’ work paid at $7.50 an hour, and was promised a raise if she worked for the company for a “long time”.

Instead, the man almost immediately changed her job status.

“In the second week, when I went to work, he told me that he wanted to change my position to part-time, without giving me reasons. He explained, ‘We only need [a] part-time translator now’.”

Jessica’s hopes were crushed as the job had meant giving up an opportunity.

“Before the interview [for] this job, I had another job interview. But after the boss interviewed me, he wanted me to work for him straight away, which means I had to quit the other job.”

To justify the salary and her new employment status she says her boss made her feel inadequate.

“‘Why [do] you translate so slow, I don’t think you are [a] qualified translator,’ he said. But actually I did not translate slowly at all.

“I think the reason he was doing that was just to lower my salary and change my position to part-time, as an excuse.”

Jessica worked at the immigration agency for three weeks.

If no pay scale covers the type of job an employee does, they will generally be covered by the federal minimum wage of $14.31 per hour, plus a premium for casual placements.

Ming Gong, a 24-year-old graduate from China, had similar problems working as a barista at Coffee Club, a cafe inside Westfield’s Eastgardens shopping centre in Sydney’s east.

“The boss said, when I was in the training period I can only get $10 per hour, [and] after I go through the training period, I can get higher pay. But he never told me when [it was] the end of the training period.”

Over the three months she worked there, the man frequently pointed out her mistakes. “He was trying to prove that I was still in the training time,” Ming says.

“He gives me a lot of pressure. In that environment, I did not really enjoy it. I felt very depressed.”

The Restaurant Employees (State) Award stipulates that, as a casual worker, Ming should have been paid at least $18 per hour.

Australian values 101

Temporary visa holders such as Ming, Jessica and Andie must sign a values statement, included in both paper and online application forms, to confirm that they understand, among other things, that Australian society values commitment to the rule of law and a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces fair play.

But they often encounter a very different set of values.

The values statement is also included on the studyinaustralia.gov.au website, in addition to a mere two short paragraphs about wages. University websites do not provide information about work.

The lack of relevant information hides the fact that students contribute hugely to exports.

In 2008, the industry was 12-and-a-half times more important to Australia than to the United States, and accounted for 1.37 percent of Australia’s GDP — only coal and iron ore brought in more money.