Most international students would tell others not to come to Australia after coronavirus response

17 August 2020

Most international students stuck in Australia during the pandemic say they would tell their friends not to come and study here, after experiencing work exploitation and being locked out of coronavirus support payments, according to a university-led survey.

International students who have remained in the country are ineligible for federal wage subsidies like JobKeeper or JobSeeker, despite stranded Australian students being offered wage help while they remain stuck in countries such as the UK, Canada and Ireland.

It has led to many migrants agreeing to unpaid or cheap labour to get by, with Unions NSW accusing the Commonwealth of abandoning international students.

Brazilian student Renata Tavares Silva had been applying for hospitality jobs and said she was asked to work for five hours without payment at a café in Gordon, in Sydney’s Upper North Shore.

“I was supposed to be doing a trial, but it was clear to me that I was there to work for free,” she told the ABC’s AM program.

When the 27-year-old refused to stay for five hours, she said she was offered money for three hours of her time.

“[The owner] told me if I passed the trial, she would pay me $17, which is below minimum wage.

“It made me realise I had to leave as soon as possible,” she said.

Renata Tavares Silva, an international student, with her arms crossed standing on the street as pedestrians walk by.
Ms Silva found out, after talking to friends, that many international students were being offered pay below the minimum wage.(ABC News: Isobel Roe)

Ms Tavares Silva complained to the Fair Work Ombudsman about her experience but said her treatment and stories from other international students in Australia left her disappointed.

“I’ve heard people being offered $13, I have heard of people being offered $8,” she said.

Survey reveals the reasons international students stayed in Australia during coronavirus

A survey of 6,000 international students and temporary migrants, yet to be released by the University of Technology Sydney and the University of New South Wales, found the majority were unimpressed with Australia’s treatment of them, according to UNSW associate professor Bassina Farbenblum.

“The majority of international students and backpackers, that’s 59 per cent, say that following their experience in Australia during COVID, they would now be somewhat less likely or far less likely to recommend Australia as a place for others to study or for a working holiday,” she said.

The Federal Government has consistently told migrant students and temporary visa holders to go home if they cannot support themselves in Australia during the pandemic.

Students, wearing backpacks, walk through a university.Students, wearing backpacks, walk through a university.
A survey of 6,000 international students and temporary migrants found 59 per cent said they would be less likely to recommend Australia as a destination for study or a working holiday.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

Ms Tavares Silva is close to finishing her MBA at Kaplan Business School, which has offered her a discount on tuition fees, and if she were to go back to Brazil it would likely ruin her chances of getting a graduate job in Australia.

Ms Farbenblum, a researcher involved with the survey, said international students gave an array of legitimate reasons for staying in the country during the pandemic.

“Some literally couldn’t leave,” she said.

“But for most, they have made a tremendous investment in their studies in Australia at the encouragement of the Australian government.

“Some of their families have put their life savings into coming to university here.”

A separate survey of 5,000 international students by Unions NSW found 60 per cent have lost their job since March and just under half are regularly skipping meals to save money.

International students feel they cannot go to the authorities, say unions

Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey said complaints about exploitation from international students were increasing, but very few students felt they could raise it with authorities for fear of being caught breaching their visa restrictions.

“While international students are studying, they are able to work for 20 hours a week but, as we know, to live in Sydney or Melbourne on 20 hours a week — you just can’t do it,” Mr Morey said.

“Employers see the opportunity and encourage students to work extra hours and of course they do.

A graduate holds on to his hat while talking on his mobile phone A graduate holds on to his hat while talking on his mobile phone
International students can be hesitant to report infringements on their labour rights because of their visa conditions, according to Unions NSW.(Reuters: Patrick T. Fallon)

“And then they are in a situation where they have broken their visa requirements but if they complain about exploitation their employers say, ‘well, you complain and we will report you to immigration and you will be deported’.”

Unions NSW said Australia was an outlier in its decision not to offer wage subsidies to international students and that other countries had included them in coronavirus stimulus plans.

“Our federal government has said to these people, ‘come to Australia and study in one of our largest exports, which is tertiary education,’ then pay for that education so it goes into the Australian economy.

“What they’re saying is, ‘now you’ve spent money here and paid taxes here, we’re not going to give you anything’.”

Unions NSW wants international students who complain about mistreatment to the Fair Work Commission to be protected from retribution from the Home Affairs Department.

In a statement to AM, the Home Affairs Department said the Government has allocated $7 million in funding to Red Cross to provide emergency relief to temporary visa holders.

“Temporary visa holders [are] also able to access relief services from other community organisations receiving a total of $200 million new funding,” the statement read.

The statement also said 20-hour working week restrictions have been relaxed for international students working in health, aged care or with a National Disability Insurance Scheme provider.

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