Warning of student exploitation post-virus

Sophie Moore

International students who have stayed in Australia throughout the coronavirus pandemic risk being exploited and having their wages stolen by employers, a study says.

The latest Information for Impact Project report found job losses among migrants and students due to COVID-19 threatened to create a "humanitarian crisis."

Ineligible for federal government support payments, many international students will be vulnerable to exploitation due to their desperate need to work among an already tight labour market.

Study author Bassina Farbenblum, from the University of New South Wales, says many international students have been unable to pay their rent and had to join Foodbank queues.

Her fear is as restrictions ease, students will be at risk of wage theft by unscrupulous employers.

Between April 9 and May 30 2019, the study surveyed about 5000 international students across Australia.

It found more than 75 per cent of students were being paid below the minimum hourly wage.

And a quarter of students were paid half that amount, receiving around $12 or less per hour.

Despite increases in the minimum wage the figures haven't budged since 2016.

International students "suffered in silence, often because of visa concerns or fear of job loss, Associate Professor Farbenblum said.

About seven per cent of workers said they had been fired from the job for raising a complaint.

Most underpaid students were young people aged around 23, with 60 per cent studying at university and about 30 per cent at vocation and English language courses.

More than 70 per cent had chosen to study in NSW for about two years.

Students not fluent in English were likely to be paid less than those with a better grasp of the language.

The impact was most severe for young people from Chinese backgrounds, with well over half paid $12 or less per hour and one in ten less than $10 per hour, with the national minimum wage being $19.49 an hour.

The Fair Work Ombudsman flagged a cracked down on wage theft in 2016, threatening stronger penalties against employers.

But students feared the regulator would dob them in to immigration authorities if they had worked too many hours, Prof Farbenblum said.

The study recommended the federal government scrap the 40-hour-fortnight working limit to allow students to avoid penalties.

It also said a "firewall" blocking information passing between the ombudsman and Department of Home Affairs would increase the likelihood of students reporting exploitation in the workplace.

Study co-author Laurie Berg, from the University of Technology Sydney, warned the federal government not to treat international students 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," Prof Berg said.

The professors have launched a coronavirus-focused survey of temporary migrants and international students who remained in Australia during the pandemic, to measure its impact on exploitation and homelessness.