International Students and Wage Theft in Australia report highlights 'rampant' and sustained level of exploitation

Despite commitments to improve conditions, international students are still subject to wage theft and poor employment conditions, a new report finds.

A nationwide study involving 5000 international students has found the majority are experiencing serious wage theft with three in four students earning below the minimum casual wage and one in four earning less than half the minimum.

‘International Students and Wage Theft in Australia’ is the latest report from UTS Law Associate Professor Laurie Berg and UNSW Associate Professor Bassina Farbenblum who co-direct the Migrant Worker Justice Initiative.

It builds on their 2016 national survey of temporary migrant workers. This new study finds that, despite efforts from the Fair Work Ombudsman over the last three years and stronger penalties against employers, it is still ‘business as usual’ in terms of the exploitation of international students.

A/Prof Farbenblum says the proportion of international students who are egregiously underpaid has remained essentially unchanged:

“Our findings show that tinkering around the edges of the problem isn’t working. Wage theft is endemic for migrant workers and indeed many Australian workers in certain industries. To seriously disrupt wage theft in Australia, we need urgent reforms to labour enforcement and student visa conditions, as well as a new wage recovery tribunal.”

RLC employment solicitor Sharmilla Bargon welcomed the new report as a call to action, saying that the current system does not do enough to protect the welfare of international students and other temporary visa holders in the Australian workforce.

"This report lays bare distressing and unsurprising levels of exploitation of international students and other migrant workers," she said.

In comments made to Sydney Morning Herald following the launch of the report, Ms Bargon said:

“Underpaid wages is the most common employment-related problem for clients of our service. There is not a week that goes by that we don’t see international students that have been exploited at work.

"And as the international students and wage theft report highlights, International students are incredibly vulnerable to a range of exploitations, and we have seen these vulnerabilities dramatically increase amid the COVID-19 pandemic." 

A/Prof Berg says almost two-thirds of international students didn’t seek information or help for problems at work.

“They suffered in silence, often because of visa concerns or fear of job loss. Our findings confirm many who complained were in fact sacked. Their visa concerns are also valid – there’s nothing to stop the labour regulator sharing information with immigration authorities if a student has worked more hours than her visa allows.”

The report forms part of the Information for Impact project, funded by StudyNSW, to better understand the problems international students encounter in work and housing, and to determine effective interventions. Since this study, the impact of COVID-19 has seen many international students lose their casual jobs. Excluded from JobKeeper and JobSeeker assistance, many are left with no income to meet their basic living expenses.

“The COVID-19 shutdown has created a humanitarian crisis among international students and other migrant workers in Australia,” A/Prof Farbenblum says. “Many have been unable to pay their rent and joined foodbank queues.”

With the easing of restrictions, international students are in danger of becoming even more vulnerable to exploitation because of their highly precarious financial status and desperation for work in the tightly constrained labour market.

To document the extent of this crisis, the academics have just launched a world-leading COVID-focused nationwide survey of temporary migrants in Australia.

The new survey will gauge levels of financial insecurity, workplace exploitation and homelessness among international students and other temporary migrants who have remained here during the pandemic.

A/Prof Berg says we have moral and human rights responsibilities:

“The Federal Government cannot treat international students and their labour as a utilitarian commodity.

During COVID-19, many international students were essential workers in aged care, supermarkets, food delivery and cleaning, keeping Australians safe, fed and cared for. Yet the Government turned its back on those who lost jobs and has failed to seriously address exploitation among those who are working.”

See also

One in four international students earn less than half the minimum wage (The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 June 2020)

Covid Impact Survey: Voicing temporary migrants’ experiences in Australia during COVID-19