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.”

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