Landmark data on overseas worker exploitation has revealed almost 75% of Chinese student visa workers in Sydney are paid below the minimum wage, with two out of five paid just $12 an hour or less. For those working as waiters, 100% are paid below the minimum award rate for casuals.
The figures represent the first in-depth data on international worker underpayments in Australia.
Laying out the results at an IR academics conference last week, University of Sydney Business School lecturer Stephen Clibborn said he had surveyed 1,433 international students enrolled in Sydney, 19% of who had a part-time job. Of those 272 students:
- 60% said they were paid under the national minimum wage of $17.29 an hour;
- the lowest pay was $0 an hour, with 35% paid $12 an hour or less;
- 50% received no pay slip; and
- 35% said they felt threatened or unsafe at work;
- For Chinese students, 73.5% were paid under the min wage and 43% received $12 or less.
The Chinese students worked mostly in restaurants/cafes (35%), followed by retail (24%) and fast food (10%), and largely in the CBD, Haymarket, Pyrmont, Ultimo and Broadway.
All the Chinese students working as waiters earned below $23.09 an hour, the legal minimum for casuals under the Restaurant Industry Award.
In a typical case, a waiter at a high-end Chinese restaurant in the Sydney CBD earned nothing for his first half “training” shift, then $10 an hour for the first six months, and then $12 thereafter.
The waiter’s total weekly income came to just $240 for 20 hours work, including Saturdays. That was less than half their legal entitlement of $508, meaning the employer pocketed about $268 a week and the government received nothing in tax.
Peers play major role for overseas students
Asking the students why they accepted underpaid wages, Clibborn found they generally didn’t refer to the traditionally accepted theory that the rates were comparable with their home country. Most said they were unaware of what rates were back home as they had never worked before coming to Sydney.
However, comparisons to what other international students were paid in Sydney played a major role, with one saying $12 an hour was in the “middle to high level compared to other Asian bosses” and another saying “$10 is a lot more than $7, isn’t it?”
Social networks (both personal and virtual) were a factor, with one student saying his room-mate told him that he shouldn’t accept anything lower than $12 an hour.
Students were aware of the Australian minimum wage but regarded themselves as having little choice in the matter because they were not local and it was easy to replace international students.
Australia’s in-take of international students has more than doubled since 2002, with the country’s proportion of international students to local students second only to Luxemburg.
In its latest annual report, the Fair Work Ombudsman said court actions involving overseas workers surged by 75% during 2014-15, with the majority involving the restaurant industry.
(This story first ran in Workforce Daily, February 15, 2016)
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