The collapse of Swan Cleaning has brought to light the exploitation of international students in Australia. Nearly 2500 workers, most of them international students, have lost their jobs. Because they are foreign workers, they are missing out on their entitlements.

Swan owes $1.6 million in wages, and more for employees’ leave and superannuation. Yet the governments’ Fair Entitlements Guarantee scheme that provides support for people who cannot recover their entitlements after businesses go bust, only covers Australian citizens, or holders of a permanent or special category visa.

The Queensland United Voice Secretary, Gary Bullock, described the situation as “nothing short of racist.” One worker who lost three weeks’ pay and one week of annual leave told The Age, “I can’t pay my myki [public transport card], I can’t go to buy food. I have a little savings but I have to use that to pay for my studies … I don’t know what to do.”

Exploitation

There are over 500,000 international students enrolled at universities, TAFEs and vocational schools in Australia. Under current arrangements, international students can legally work only 20 hours a week. Naturally, the high cost of living in Australia, combined with the pressure of paying upfront university fees, forces international students to seek work off the books.

Many international students work long hours driving taxis, where in NSW, they earn an average wage of $11 with no entitlements (the minimum wage is $15.80).

In restaurants, cafes and the service sector, international students often earn less than half the award wage. It has become so common that it would be no surprise if business models are based on this low-wage workforce.

An expose in the Fairfax press in January reported that an investigator with the Fair Work Ombudsman had seen rates of between $8 and $10 for hospitality workers.

One well-known, exclusive, French bakery in Brisbane has a racial pay scale. Australians get the award, European students a few dollars less, while those from Asia are on 60 per cent of the award rate.

Yet the response of Australian workers to this situation is instructive. There have been no calls for expelling these workers, stopping them coming, or putting “locals first”. In workplaces where I have worked, there has been a recognition of the need to make sure international students know their rights and pay rates—and that because of the precarious nature of their situation, Australian workers must take the lead in this. As a union member, I have always fought wage inequality and succeeded in getting international students award rates.

While this may not be the experience across the whole industry, there is no generalised hostility.

Ensuring all workers are paid what they are entitled to means organising and campaigning for it collectively in the workplace. Demanding the abolition of the 20-hour a week limit would also take the pressure off international students to accept dodgy conditions.

Solidarity

Since Gina Rinehart announced plans to employ 1800 foreign workers last year, the union movement has pursued a “local workers first” campaign that puts the blame for unemployment onto foreign workers. Many on the left have stood behind this campaign, denying its racist overtones and claiming that because the 457 visa is exploitative the left must demand it be abolished.

If the same logic was employed in the case of international students, the unions and the left would be calling for scrapping the international student visa. Obviously, this would create a complete breakdown in solidarity between workers and encourage a climate of suspicion towards international students. This is why the left has never done this.

The actions of the unions involved in defending the cleaners at Swan and elsewhere is setting a welcome example. The “Clean Start” campaign for fair pay deals in the cleaning industry, and now the “Get Respect” campaign for international students’ work rights, both run by United Voice, actively campaign against the racism that allow these workers to be hyper-exploited.

Get Respect’s aims include assisting “international students to learn their rights, and arming themselves with the knowledge they need to stand up for themselves and resist this ugly exploitation and racism that is such a hallmark of their experience in Australia.”

Unfortunately, this does not mirror the 457 campaign. The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) have responded to a recent report of up to 200 workers on 457 visas being ripped off by migration agents and employers by backing legislation to put Australian jobs first through “labour market testing”.

It is solidarity and action in the workplace, not racism and division, that can save jobs and fight exploitation.

Robert Nicolas

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