Clean Start: A Fair Deal for Cleaners


International students begin fightback for respect at work

WHEN Dewan* first came to Australia to study, he expected to learn a great deal.

But the Bangladeshi student, typical of the 300,000 who come to Australia each year to attend our universities and TAFEs, was surprised to discover that his toughest lessons were not in lecture theatres or study halls. Instead, they were at work.

Like all international students, Dewan is entitled to work 20 hours a week during term time to help him pay his way through university. And like many international students, he chose to become a cleaner to make ends meet.

It wasn’t long before he found himself being thoroughly exploited and ripped off by his boss, who ran a contract cleaning company employed to clean a major Melbourne shopping centre.

WHEN Dewan* first came to Australia to study, he expected to learn a great deal.

But the Bangladeshi student, typical of the 300,000 who come to Australia each year to attend our universities and TAFEs, was surprised to discover that his toughest lessons were not in lecture theatres or study halls. Instead, they were at work.

Like all international students, Dewan is entitled to work 20 hours a week during term time to help him pay his way through university. And like many international students, he chose to become a cleaner to make ends meet.

It wasn’t long before he found himself being thoroughly exploited and ripped off by his boss, who ran a contract cleaning company employed to clean a major Melbourne shopping centre.

He was often paid less than the minimum wage. He was not paid for every hour he worked. Unsure of his rights, he took it all on the chin – afraid he’d lose the job he relied on to help fund his dream of getting an education at a prestigious Australian university.

“Sometimes they don’t pay me,” he says of his employer. “When I talk about this with the manager, he pushes me. I’m always scared. If I do something … I’ll lose my job.”

Dewan also found himself bullied and the victim of racism.

“If your skin is not white, you don’t get the respect. Simple and easy,” he says.

This kind of treatment is unlawful in Australia. But it flourishes because international students often simply don’t know their rights – or don’t know how to enforce them. That leaves them vulnerable to unscrupulous employers, willing to take advantage of their lack of knowledge and exploit them for all they are worth.

And it’s not just cleaners. International students working in cafes, restaurants and retailers and many other businesses tell similar stories. In fact, a recent report found that room attendants in luxury hotels, many of whom are international students, are expected to work many extra hours each week at the end of their shifts without pay.  The report found that these workers are missing out on thousands of dollars a year in unpaid wages.

So what is to be done?

The obvious answer is for 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.

A new Facebook page is doing just that. Get Respect! is harnessing the power of social media to help educate international students and provide them with the knowledge they so urgently need to stand up for their rights. It is an initiative of United Voice, one of Australia’s largest unions covering workers in cleaning, security, hospitality and many other industries.

Increasing numbers of international students have been joining United Voice to avoid these kinds of abuses and improve their working conditions, the union says. Four years ago international students joined United Voice to help fight poverty wages and extreme workloads in city office cleaning, as part of United Voice’s Clean Start campaign.

And, together with fellow office cleaners, they won a landmark national agreement that increased wages by almost 20 per cent and provided for fairer workloads and more job security. This year city office cleaners will fight to renew their Clean Start Agreement for three more years.

Ali, an international student also working as a cleaner, agrees that Get Respect! is a important step in the right direction.

“This is a great idea, because so many students here in Australia don’t know their rights,” the student from Pakistan said. “But if they did know their rights, the bosses wouldn’t find it easy to rip them off, so this is very important.”

Ali added that international students working in Australia also need to join their union.

“International students need to join. The union is where they will find someone willing to talk for them and help them stand up for their rights, as well as find lots of other workers who can all support each other.”

“They can all do something about these problems together.”

*Names have been changed to protect workers’ anonymity

Are you an international student? Have you had similar experiences to Dewan and Ali? Tell us your story, and join the campaign at Get Respect!

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