International students routinely exploited at work

Stephen Fanjaya is an international student from Indonesia, who has been living in Sydney for the past three years. In that time he has held about 15 different jobs, changing frequently due to underpayment.

“I used to do different jobs, a lot of jobs. My old job was underpaid and that’s the problem. [I was paid] eight to 12 dollars an hour. Some of them didn’t pay me and some of them underpaid me.”

The 22-year-old business management student is happy with his current job but in the past, working in kitchens and warehouses, he has faced discrimination and dangerous working conditions.

“The supervisor always gets the easy work done by the Aussies. Then us international students, we [are] working the hard way and [it’s] really not safe,” he explained.

“Goods may fall on people and sometimes they stack up everything in a very small place and then we have to get inside by squeezing around the wall. It’s just not safe.”

The main two employment issues for international students are exploitation and a lack of opportunities, explained Thomson Ch’ng, President of the Council of International Students Australia, the peak representative organisation for international students.

Workplace exploitation takes many forms, including sham contracting, underpayment, harassment and bullying.

“What sham contracting means is that international students are being required to register an ABN … so that students can maintain an independent contractor’s relationship with the employer,” he said.

“An employer wants … to avoid taking up the responsibility of having an employee which has additional obligations, including insurance and the employment regulations you have to follow.”

According to Mr Ch’ng, educating and empowering students about their workplace rights is what is needed, but this requires more funding and resources from the government and the Fair Work Ombudsman.

“When I say empowering, I think it’s absolutely crucial that students are made aware of and understand that if they are being exploited, they do have rights and they should be standing up,” he said.

But, international students are not alone. The International Students Service at Redfern Legal Centre is just one place international students can go to for free legal advice and representation.

Kate Gauld, an International Students Service solicitor, often deals with cases where employers ask students to work more than the 40 hours a fortnight they are permitted to under the provisions of their visa.

“They’ve been lured into breaching their visa conditions and they are unsure of the legal processes in Australia … and employers often threaten students with deportation,” she said.

However, international students are entitled to the same rights as any other worker, such as the right to minimum wage and the right to seek legal recourse when they have faced workplace exploitation.

“They have the same rights but in terms of exercising them, they can run into hurdles that domestic students don’t encounter,” Ms Gauld said.

This story by Paul Gregoire was originally published on