The Age Comment by Dr Joanna Howe
Underpaying foreign students who work as cleaners is not only unjust, it is bad for Australia's reputation and undercuts our wages and conditions.
If Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne are serious about rebuilding the international education market they need to pay close attention to the report released this week uncovering the exploitation of international students working in the cleaning industry.
The Coalition has promised to increase revenue to universities and vocational colleges within 100 days of being elected by extending post-study visas for international students. This plan will not entice more international students if we keep turning a blind eye to the exploitation of these students when they are in the Australian workplace.
As Helen Szoke, a former race discrimination commissioner has observed, "what we don't want are international students going home telling stories about being treated badly or being treated in a way which constitutes racism".
Yet, this is precisely what is occurring: international students are being treated differently as cleaning workers because they are not Australian. The top three countries of origin of international student cleaners are India (51.5 per cent), Colombia (15.2) and Sri Lanka (12.1).
Of gravest concern however, is the way dodgy cleaning contractors are using international students to undercut Australian wages and conditions. These contractors are cutting costs by using shadow cleaning sub-contractors that exploit international students, whom they employ as cleaners in city office buildings by underpaying them up to $15,000 a year.
Many of these workers are being paid a miserable $15 an hour, despite a union-backed starting wage rate of $24.35, which most Australian cleaning workers are on.
This means many international students live just above the poverty line with average earnings of only $325.86 a week after tax from their cleaning work. It also means Australian cleaners are being priced out of the job market because of this exploitation of international students working in the cleaning industry.
It is patently obvious that something needs to be done. Australia's higher education sector cannot afford the exploitation of international student workers to tarnish our reputation. Australia's international education activities generate more than $15 billion in export income a year, supporting more than 100,000 local jobs. The underpayment of international students in the cleaning industry also undermines local labour standards and puts downward pressure on wages and conditions.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these international students are receiving less than a fair deal at work and they deserve much better: in fact, no less than justice and equal treatment in terms of wages and conditions.
A Coalition government plan to deregulate the international education market in order to rebuild it will not work if it stops there. The Coalition needs to focus not only on increasing the domestic work opportunities for international students but on ensuring that once in the workplace, these workers are treated in an equivalent way to their Australian counterparts.
Dr Joanna Howe is a lecturer in law at the University of Adelaide and researches the treat-ment of foreign workers in the domestic labour market.