International students are being exploited in workplaces across Sydney, paid as little as $8 an hour by employers who take advantage of their desperate need for work.
The underpayments, well below the legal entitlement, are pushing many to break visa restrictions that limit their work to 40 hours a fortnight, putting the students at risk of deportation.
Fairfax Media visited an English language school in the city this week where more than 50 international students said they were being paid below the minimum wage of $16.87 an hour.
At least a dozen of those students claimed they received $10 an hour in cash at Chinese, Thai, Korean and Turkish restaurants in suburbs including Gladesville, Marrickville, Haymarket and Chatswood.
One Chinese student said she was paid $9, while many students said they knew of others earning $8.
A young Italian student said she was working up to 70 hours each week – at a coffee shop and an Italian restaurant – as well as spending four hours each weekday in class.
“What can I do? I have to work,” she said. “I know it’s illegal but I cannot work less [than 20 hours a week]. I would not survive.”
It seems little has changed since a major Fairfax Media investigation in 2013 revealed more than 40 restaurants in Sydney were paying their staff wages as low as $8 an hour.
The Redfern Legal Centre runs an international student service and dealt with 53 cases of workplace exploitation last year.
Chief executive Jo Shulman said students were often afraid to speak out for fear of reprisal.
“Their employers will often threaten to report them to immigration and have them deported if they make a complaint,” she said.
The Fair Work Ombudsman recouped $1.1 million in wages and entitlements for about 700 visa holders last financial year.
A spokesman said foreign workers were often not fully aware of their workplace rights under Australian laws and “youth, language and cultural barriers” made them vulnerable to exploitation.
The Ombudsman is currently investigation the PappaRich Malaysian restaurant in Broadway after receiving four complaints from former employees.
One of those complaints was lodged by Wan, a 25-year-old Malaysian university graduate, who says he was paid $13 an hour and received no penalty rates or superannuation. Under the industry award, he should have been paid $21.
“They probably assume because we are students we have no idea of our rights,” he said. “This is a big international franchise, so it’s no longer just small business.”
His co-worker Michelle, who recently graduated from the University of Sydney, said she sought employment with the Malaysian restaurant because it made her feel connected to her home country.
“We thought we would be part of the community but I guess they don’t see it that way,” she said. “Sometimes I would work for 30 hours a week when my bills were due and then 10 hours the next [so as not to exceed visa restrictions]. Living like that for four months was just insane. It’s not a sustainable way of living.”
PappaRich Broadway said it was unable to comment as the matter was under investigation “with the facts still being clarified”.
“PappaRich Broadway takes any matters involving our employees very seriously, and we are committed to remunerating our staff in line with what is fair and legal, while providing a safe and happy workplace,” the restaurant told Fairfax Media in a statement.
Thomson Ch’ng, the president of the Council of International Students Australia, said the problem was widespread and many students were “distressed and despaired” about how to cope.
“It is too common to the point where everyone thinks it is OK,” he said. “The government and industry are encouraging more and more international students to come to Australia and that makes the situation worse because the demand for jobs is going up but there is little supply out there. That leads to the point where students are willing to engage in this environment.”
Jason Stewart has been teaching English to international students in Sydney for almost a decade and says workplace exploitation is “rampant” and worsening.
“Definitely most of these students are doing over the 20 hours a week they’re permitted by law to do,” he said. “But they can’t survive on $200 a week.”
Australia is the world’s most expensive destination for international students, with high fees and living costs.
“They aren’t happy but they feel there aren’t many choices available to them,” Mr Stewart said.
(Source : www.smh.com.au/national/education/international-students-forced-to-work-for-just-8-an-hour-20150117-12rwuo.html)