Clean Start: A Fair Deal for Cleaners

Exploitation of foreign students must end

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).

United Voice's report found that underpayment of international students was  occurring in at least one in four city offices. Many of these workers were being  employed illegally in what appeared to be sham contracting arrangements and  sometimes without any paperwork. Three out of four international students knew  little or nothing about their rights at work, and many were subject to abuse and  intimidation.

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.


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