International students urged to complain if exploited at work

24 year-old Nepalese student Avishek arrived in Sydney three years ago to study accounting.

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To cover his university fees and living costs, he began working as kitchen hand.

He says he knew he was being underpaid but never spoke up over fears of losing his job.

“I wasn’t getting the appropriate money that I was supposed to get. I wasn’t saying anything to any one because at the end of the day I knew I had to stay here and pay my uni fees in order to survive.”

Avishek’s experience is not uncommon, says the Fair Work Ombudsman, who adds international students represent a significant number of complaints to the organisation.

Last financial year, almost half of cases filed in court by The Fair Work Ombudsman involved a visa-holder.

Over a third of these concerned an international student.

But Natalie James, from the Fair Work Ombudsman, suspects there are many more who don’t complain.

“We also know they can be hesitant to come forward because of concerns about their visa so we are particularly concerned about international students because we’ve heard some very serious examples of exploitation.”

International students are only permitted to work 20 hours per work.

But Bijay Sapkota, President of the Council of International Students Australia, says they often work more to cover their fees and living expenses.

“Some students tend to pay for the fees, the majority of international students pay for their accommodation, living costs – which is really expensive – and this makes them work more than 20 hours a week.”

According to the Ombudsman, employers use this as leverage to threaten workers to stay silent.

That was the case for Avishek.

“If I do more than 20 hours, the first thing in my mind was that I’d be sent out of Australia, like every international student thinks.”

Research commissioned by the Ombudsman found that 60 per cent of international students believe if they report a workplace issue to their employer, the situation will either remain the same or get worse.

That fear has led the Ombudsman to launch a new strategy that urges international students to lodge complaints.

Ms James says it aims to reassure students that in doing so, their visas won’t be compromised.

“I can reassure all international students, that if you haven’t been paid correctly and you come to the Fair Work Ombudsman for help, we will ensure that your visa status is preserved.”

They want workers to know their rights as do other workers in Australia.

The Fairwork Ombudsman says most employees should be paid at least $18.29 an hour.

For casual workers, the minimum hourly rate is $22.86 an hour.

Employees should also be aware of whether they’re entitled to penalty rates.

Resources to help workers understand their rights are available on the Fair Work Ombudsman website in 30 different languages.