Friday, 28 August 2015

The Invisible Army

An investigative feature written by Cornelia Koppang Henriksen
First publised by

“Do not tell anyone that it was me who told you this,” Dan is smiling even though you can see the nervousness glowing from his eyes. He knows that he can be thrown out of the country for what he has done. The hopeless situation he was in made him willing to do almost anything to make ends meet. He did not ask any questions when he finally got a job and only did what he was asked to do. Dan is certain that he is not the only one; he thinks many other international students in Townsville find themselves in the very same difficult situation.

As an international student from India coming to Townsville to do his masters at James Cook University, Dan did not know much about his rights as a worker in Australia. Dan is not his real name. His identity needs to be hidden in this story to protect him from being deported from the country.

“International students are often desperate to find jobs when they come to Australia, and they will do anything to keep that job. And most of the stores and restaurants know that. That is why they keep doing it”

It took a few months of job hunting before Dan finally got the chance to start working in an Indian owned store in Townsville. He was relieved and thought everything was going to turn out well. But there was a twist lurking that would change Dan’s mindset very quickly. Dan can tell about illegally long trial periods, low wages and expectations of validating student visas.

“I worked a whole week for free, my boss called it a trial period. I worked 10 hours every day of that week.”

He swallows quickly and looks away. 10 hours do not fit with what he has said earlier.

“I thought you said you worked 16 hours a day?”

The student sighs and closes his eyes for a few seconds. “I was thinking 10 hours would sound a little bit better. But you are right, it actually was 16 hours a day.”

 There are restrictions on the numbers of hours you can work in Australia when you are holding a student visa. You are not allowed to work until your study course has begun. When the course has started you can work the maximum of 40 hours per fortnight during the term, and you can only work unlimited hours when the course is not in session. The same restrictions count for unpaid work.

Dan says he did not know about the rules in his visa while undertaking his so-called trial period. But he eventually grew tired of it and did some research.

“I did some research a few days in. I could not believe this was the right way to go about it. When I found out it was illegal, I quit the same day.”

One of the media advisers, Tom McPherson, for the Fair Work Ombudsman thinks that the best defence for an overseas worker against being underpaid or treated unfairly is to know their rights. He also points out that they have the same workplace rights as any other worker in Australia.

“Our experience suggests that overseas workers are often not fully aware of their workplace rights under Australian laws. Youth, language and cultural barriers can also create difficulties for them,” McPherson says.

“We are keen to ensure that all those who work in Australia are treated with dignity and respect and accorded the same rights as local workers. Indeed, that is the law.”

The Australian Affairs did an analysis with counselling experts In May 2013. It showed that there are more businesses that are taking advantage of international students who are desperate for work. It reported that in most cases international students are being paid as little as $7 an hour, far below the minimum wages anywhere in Australia.

Statistics from the workers’ union, United Voice, show that 79 per cent of international students do not know about their rights for working in Australia. The minimum wage in Australia is currently 17.29 dollars an hour, but the United Voice also reported that a quarter of international students only get 10 dollars or less an hour, and that 60 per cent earned less than the minimum wage.

“International students have become an invisible army of low paid, exploited workers. Many of them must work to support themselves while they study, but their vulnerability means they are prey for unscrupulous employers,” United Voice state secretary, Jess Walsh, said to the South Asia Times.

Ewen Jones is the federal member for Herbert in Townsville. Herbert is one of 150 House of Representatives electorates in the Parliament of Australia. Jones is working to improve services for residents in Townsville, to fight for our fair share of Government funding and to campaign on important issues.

Mr. Jones is aware of it happening in Australia, but has not heard about any international students being underpaid or exploited by businesses in Townsville.

“If overseas students are concerned they are being unfairly treated in the workplace, I would encourage them to visit the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s website, for further information on the correct processes to follow,” Ewen Jones says.

In March 2014 the Fair Work Ombudsman revealed that the Mariana Marked, an Asian grocery store in Adelaide, had been caught out underpaying seven staff, including five international students, more than $23,000. Some of it was for shifts they worked, but were never paid for. According to the University of Adelaide and student representatives, the practice is widespread and it is particularly involving international students being paid cash in hand for working in small restaurants.

The Advertiser wrote that in South Australia’s last financial year, the Fair Work Ombudsman recouped $4.3 million for 1600 employees who had been underpaid. That included $121,185 in underpaid wages and entitlements for 43 visa-holders. Nationally in 2012 and 2013, $1.4 million was recovered for overseas workers. 2018 complaints were received from visa holders, a 61 per cent increase over the previous period.

University of South Australia Student Association president, Arun Thomas, has said to the Advertiser that he knew of some who received as little as $6 an hour and they were not paid for up to a month while under ‘probation’.

“It is happening everywhere – it is a big problem,” Mr Thomas said. 

“What happens is the students are prepared to do anything, they need the experience and they will work really, really hard. They are usually not aware of what their rights are in Australia and what the minimum wage is and employers will take advantage of this.

“When you start converting even $6 an hour, as I know some people have been getting, back into their home currencies, it can actually seem pretty good.

“I know of people who have been put on a trial, that will sometimes last a month, and they will not get paid for that entire period.”

In an update from August 2014 about the rules and law about internships and unpaid work on the Fair Work Ombudsman’s webpage, you can find detailed and easy explained information about the arrangements. Unpaid trials are only appropriate when they involve demonstrating a skill directly relevant to the job and are only as long as necessary to demonstrate that job skill. It is dependent on the type of work and could range from an hour to a shift, and it is only legal when there is direct supervision for the entire trial.

One owner of an Indian restaurant in Townsville is shaking his head irritated by the topic. He has requested to be anonymous due to the reactions that might occur in the Indian community from this story. He is assuring that all his employees are treated the way the law requires and that he has not heard about this happening in the area. But he points out that he does not feel bad for the students who are experiencing this illegal work practice in Townsville.

“The students have themselves to thank for this. No one is forcing them to do anything illegally. They can easily refuse and find themselves another job. They should not accept more hours from the employer when they are asked to work more. It is the students’ responsibility to provide information about when their holidays and school time are,” the business owner says, but adds that he does not know about businesses in Townsville underpaying their employees.

“If the employee thinks he deserves more pay, he should talk to his employer and fix the issue rather than winging about it,” he says.

Dan comes back inside after a quick cigarette break and some fresh air in his big garden. He asks again to get it confirmed that no one will know he has been talking. One of the biggest issues that create a dilemma for the international students is the enormous amount of students looking for work in a small city as Townsville. He thinks that even though no one is forcing anyone to accept anything, there is not much of a choice left for the students.

“Since there are so many applying for the same jobs, some students feel really lucky for even having a job. If some students are not willing violate their visas, than the business owners know that there are others who will. And they will rather hire those,” he says.

“I am just glad that I have found another job with good pay and legal work hours.

“I know that I am now one of the lucky ones.”

Monday, 1 June 2015

The Holiday That Went Wrong

A profile feature written by Cornelia Koppang Henriksen

It was winter and the weather was freezing cold. The snow did not seem to ever stop falling down from the dark sky. But that was ok. This moment was unbelievable. Unbelievable, because no one would ever believe him if he told them that he was sitting on the rooftop of the Moscow Kremlin smoking weed with two KGB agents.

“Do you want a cup of coffee?” David Morey is smiling from his kitchen with two coffee cups in his hands. He seems like a normal 60-year-old, he got his own orchid garden and a beach view from his balcony. But David is far from what you will characterize as plain and ordinary. He is Australian born, but he grew up in Santiago in Chile, and after living both here and there in the world, he has now lived in Townsville for the last six years. A year ago he started his master degree in geology at James Cook University, but in his bedroom closet he has a hidden collection of old treassures that can tell some wild stories about his past.

“I am so sorry,” he says after a big yawn. “I went out last night and it got too late, I am quite hungover today.” He turns on the water kettle and leaves the room. When he comes back, he is carrying a huge plastic bag, which he empties on the kitchen table. “There are under a dozen people I have showed this to. It is a part of my life I do not talk much about”.

At least a couple hundred backstage passes and key cards from different music tours and concerts in Europe are spread all over the table. Names of bands and artists like Whitesnake, Pixies, Ozzy Osbourne, Björk and Cliff Richard are printed on a bunch of them. “One day I am going to put them out on Ebay, or something. I think I could get good money for them”. David smiles and keep going through the pile of cards until he finds the backstage pass he was looking for. It is from the Nevermind tour with Nirvana in 1991.

For 15 years he worked as a tour manager and promoter in the music industry and owned a production company in London. He dated Björk, hung out with Kurt Cobain at his last weeks, and went from concert to concert and from tour to tour. “We traveled around the world with lots of indie bands for a long time, like Teenage Fanclub and Nirvana. Nirvana was really small back then. It was a funny time.”  

A soft clicking sound from the kettle tells us that it is time for coffee. He leads the way out to the porch and place two reeking hot cups on a wooden table. Even though we are close to the city, there is this feeling of being alone in a small jungle. Birds are singing and tall green trees are cutting off most of the city noise. David sits down, crosses his legs and lights a cigarette.
“It was a holiday gone wrong,” he laughs.  “I went to visit a friend of mine who was working for catering and music companies in London. I ended up in a bar with her boss and he offered me a job for three months.” He drops the ash of his cigarette and continues with a grin. “And then I just kept doing that, it escalated, and I started going on tours with bands.”

Private photo

Right before the Soviet Union collapsed, he did a concert for Zucchero in the Kremlin, the main parliament hall in Moscow. “We were told that it was hard to find fresh goods in Russia, so we smuggled loads of food, cigarettes and liquor with us on the train from Berlin.” David leans forward and grabs his coffee cup. “Two KGB guys used to come to make sure everything was all right, I always offered them some of our food. We became friends, and one night they said they had something to show me. They led the way up some wooden stairs and trap doors. Eventually we were on the roof of the Kremlin. It was in the middle of the night, it was snowing and we sat there and smoked a joint. I remember I thought: ‘No one has ever done this before'."

“One of them is still my friend, and still KGB. I've got him on Facebook. He is picking up my mum at the airport in Moscow on Sunday, and he is going to take her to dinner and show her around the city.” David takes a sip of his coffee and shakes his head. “It is pretty cool, my mum is being showed around by the KGB, someone I met almost 30 years ago.”
Private photo
He ran his company from London for many years, until one life-changing day in 1998. “Then the tax man came to our door and asked for 40.000 pounds, I left the country a week later and hid in India for six months,” he starts laughing again. “I have never been back to England, and I still owe that money.”

 “It was kind of like Spinal Tap, only with better drugs,” he smiles for a short second before his eyes get serious. “It is not even close to living in the real world. There is no reality in it, just shitloads of drugs, shitloads of girls and shitloads of piss. No, I do not miss it.” David takes another cigarette from a packet on the table. “I am not a coke head anymore.”

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Before You Get Into Private Rental…

Before You Get Into Private Rental…
A real-life horror story written by Cornelia Koppang Henriksen

As a graduated journalist, I know that journalism is mostly about conveying stories as an impartial third party. But sometimes you might just have a story too good to not write about yourself. And that is exactly the situation I am in right now. I have this good story. Which is not really a good story as in a good happy story, but a good story because it shows how cruel and deceitful a person can be for no apparent reason.

Private accommodation rental in the city of Townsville in North Queensland, Australia. Some of you might think “Yeah, what about it?” and others, I know that there are many of you, will say “Enough said”. Out loud. For the ones who have no experience on the topic, this will be a shocking ride for you. For the latter group of people – I feel so good that you exist and are able to relate to the nightmare I have been through. Of course, I do feel bad for you at the same time. Really, I do not wish those kinds of experiences on anyone. But I am pretty selfish, and I do not like to be alone in difficult situations either.

Let’s get to it then. When you rent a house or apartment, even a share house, as an adult in your mid-twenties, you expect your landlord to give you some kind of privacy and at least to treat you with decency. I believed you should be able to expect that without being too demanding or naive. Well, before I came to Australia that is.

I will shorten down my first private rental experience in a quick summary. I was living with a nursing student who sometimes practiced with her syringes and other medical instruments on the balcony. Our landlord had as a habit to come by our house when it suited him, and one day he found those syringes lying around on a table. Then hell broke lose, with countless accusations that we were heavy drug users. My landlord talked about us injecting ourselves with drugs to our neighbours, and said that our explanation about the syringes being for purely educational purposes for the nursing student was just a bad excuse for what really was going on. 

Everyone suddenly believed that I was shooting myself up with heroin. Great. So I moved out as quickly as I could and found this other place. It was a two-storey share house with an amazing deck overlooking an oasis of a pool; I even had my own balcony. The landlord seemed really nice too, so I signed a six months contract.

I remember my first night after I was done with moving all my stuff into the house. I was sitting in my new oasis drinking a corona and dipping my feet in the pool, so relieved. I was no longer an alleged drug addict and I had a seemingly decent landlord, finally. Little did I know what was lurking in the shadows…

The story about my second experience is far more complex, and it lasted for a period of over five months. I can still feel the aftershocks from it while I am sitting here writing in a safe and relaxed environment in my new backyard with a cup of Bali coffee.

So, over to that crazy landlord No. 2. Keys. I never received any keys to the property. No keys, except for my own bedroom and one screen door in front of a heavy wooden front door. And we had three entrances to the house, two of them were never locked at all. Welcome to my humble abode! You can get in whenever you want to, straight from the street! I do not even have to be home to have guests. If you are my neighboor, my friend or just a thief or a little murderer, I will let you inside. Mostly because I do not have a way to keep you out.

I did try to talk to my landlord about it, but he got furious and yelled at me. I did not need any more keys, no other tenant had ever asked him about it before. When I insisted on having keys, he went to my housemates and told them that he did not think I understood English. “Make Cornelia understand that the front door is only for display purposes”.

Yep, so that happened.

This guy was also that kind of landlord who just came into the house unannounced, sometimes completely without purpose. Not that I run around naked or in my underwear that often, but I do like to have the freedom to do so if I wish when I am in my own home. But with an angry and misled middle-aged man always sneaking around the corner with full access to a house we did not have any keys for, even the towel-walk from the bathroom after a shower was uncomfortable.

My housemates and I bought a nice gas barbeque to have on the porch in the backyard. When my landlord saw that, he started yelling again. He demanded us to remove the grill from the porch and place it in a hidden spot behind a bush on the other side of the house as soon as possible. Or “ASAP!” as he so kindly screamed at us while his slightly shaking face turned red in fury.  Did we not know how big of a fire hazard a barbeque was? Are we some complete idiots? Insurance would not cover it if something were to happen because of that death machine. Which is kind of funny, because I am pretty sure that his insurance would not have covered anything if the whole house burned down from a kitchen fire or a fallen candle either. Simply because we did not have either smoke detectors or fire alarms.

A quick reading on the fire safety page on the Queensland government website tells you that by law, a smoke alarm must be installed on each level in a multi-storey house and that anyone who sleeps with their door closed should have a smoke alarm installed in their bedroom. Further reading also informs you that you cannot install alarms near windows, doors, fans or air conditioners, as air movement may prevent smoke and gases from reaching the alarm or cause false alarms. We had one alarm in the entire house, and it was located right next to the always wide-open front door.

But as the nice and obedient, and honestly quite scared, tenants we were, we did as we were told and moved the poor barbeque to a place where no one could ever see it again. What we also did, which was quite a deadly sport, was to finally start sending our aggressive landlord notice to remedy breach-forms from the Residential Tenancies Authority (RTA). We had a contract, we had rights, and we wanted to live like most people. In privacy, in a locked home safe from house fires.

If you thought we had a crazy landlord before, you are terribly mistaken. The RTA-forms made him take off like a military missile through the roof of his own house, aim for us, and explode in our living room. There were many times he came into the house and started yelling out our names and demanding us to come and talk to him face to face. A couple of times he even started hammering angrily on my bedroom door. I was hiding under my duvet pretending I was at the university library, but my car outside divulged my presence. Traitor. Still, there was no way I was going to open up my door for this potential axe murderer. “Cornelia! Cornelia! I know you’re in there! Come out!”

He ended up sending aggressive emails instead, and let me qoute him in some of them:
"I don't know what lingering around the premises longer than required means. Sounds like venom rather than fact. So what, you've been standing there with a stopper checking on how long I linger around? This accusation is utterly twisted and catty.”
“I take no pleasure in this tit for tat exchange. I would suggest that you refrain from making any further unsubstantiated and vexatious claims, the only aim of which is to annoy and irritate.”

I was afraid of being home alone. I stayed out as long as possible, at the library or at friends’ places, just to be 100 per cent certain that some of my housemates would be there when I got home at night time. He started to send text messages to my mobile phone as well; I blocked his number, and went helplessly to the accommodation office at the university for support. There was not much they could do to help – we were locked in a contract, which my landlord had no interest in letting us out of. But they advised us to go to the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) and move out from that unsafe environment as quickly as we could. Physical and mental health came before economic issues.

So I did that. I lodged a residential tenancy dispute-form to the tribunal, got some financial help from my very understanding and worried family, and moved out with one of my housemates to pay double rent in order to feel safe.

I do not know what happened after that. If it was the sight of my vacated bedroom or a letter from the tribunal that made my landlord aware of the seriousness of the situation. But after a couple of weeks with double rent, he let me out of my contract, paid me back what I had overpaid in rent, and signed the form so I could get back my bond money. All I care about is that I no longer have to deal with him, and that I am living in a place where I can breathe, and barbeque, freely.

This text is getting far too long for anyone to get through without having a lunch break, and I have not mentioned half of the issues I had with these landlords. I still feel I have managed to describe a few alarming episodes of something I once believed only happened in bad, low-budget horror movies. I went from being a naive happy student to an alleged heroin addict to a scared little girl who always looked over her shoulder in less than six months.

I know I have been writing with a certain kind of humour throughout the whole story, but please note that this is not a joke. I can only hope that after reading this, you will think twice, or rather twenty seven times, about it and do sufficient background research before you sign any kinds of contracts on the private market.