Underpaid international students struggle with cost of living as COVID-19 prevents travel home
Nav Mittal says prospective Indian university students are sold an unrealistic dream about moving to Australia.
He says they are told they will live in large, comfortable accommodation by the beach in a city like Wollongong, find work easily and gain permanent residency soon after — if they want to.
“They don’t tell you what hardships you’ll have to go through in the process. … When they land here, within a week they realise things are not easy like that,” said Mr Mittal, the Indian Australian Cultural Association representative in Illawarra.
“The only casual jobs available to them are car wash, delivery and restaurants, and then when they approach these restaurants, they get less pay.
“They do the whole calculation and realise ‘this is not what we were told and this is a completely different picture here’, and that’s when the real struggle starts.”
Mr Mittal said the exploitation of international university students in the workplace had been happening for years, but the addition of COVID-19 meant struggling businesses were even more reluctant to pay award wages.
Adding to the stress, border closures mean there is no way out.
‘Every day, I felt loads of pressure’
University of Wollongong graduate Dao Nguyen finished her public relations degree last month.
Ms Nguyen, who is Vietnamese, worked as a waitress in a local Thai restaurant for two years and said the exploitation of international students was rife.
She said a particularly common practice was to promise a set amount of hours at a pay rate close to the award wage, but then demand earlier starts and later finishes, without paying for the overtime.
“They would talk behind your back, pay you less money to work overtime and you feel like you have to compete with your colleagues,” Ms Nguyen said.
“It’s an uncomfortable situation and every day I worked at restaurants, I felt loads of pressure.”
She is grateful to now work for a jewellery store chain that pays award wages.
“The pay is fair and it’s basically the opposite of how it used to be,” Ms Nguyen said.
“I’m extremely lucky compared to the rest of people I know, getting equal pay for the amount of hours I work, unlike where I used to work before.”
‘You don’t complain’
University of Wollongong student Karan Angadi now works for a food delivery company, but was recently a kitchen hand and waiter in Wollongong restaurants.
It was here that the Indian student was paid between $10-$13 an hour — in jobs that Fair Work estimates should be at an hourly rate of $26.03.
Mr Angadi also saw Australian workers got paid fairly at the same restaurants because, he said, they knew how to complain to authorities.
He said international students were reluctant to speak up because casual jobs were hard to find and they knew they would likely be sacked for questioning their pay rate.
“It is so hard to find jobs and with the current situation of COVID-19, so you try and hold on to whatever income you get,” Mr Angadi said.
“You make whatever money you can and you don’t want to complain to who you’re working for.
“There’s little knowledge given out about Fair Work and their complaint process has to be simple and anonymous.”
Mr Angadi is calling for regular random checks on businesses that repeatedly get called out for underpaying workers.
“They [business owners] need to know they can’t hide anywhere,” he said.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Fair Work Ombudsman said their online anonymous report tool received more than 64,000 tip-offs from workers concerned about speaking up.
And that the anonymous reporting tool included options to report in languages other than English.
“Audits we conducted last year in Wollongong, Albury-Wodonga and Ballarat recovered more than $331,000 for 725 underpaid workers,” the spokesperson said.
“We targeted these regions because of the large population of university students and anonymous reports from local workers.
“Visa holders should be aware that, in line with an agreement with the Department of Home Affairs, they can seek assistance from the Fair Work Ombudsman without fear of their visa being cancelled.”