‘A recipe for disaster’: The rules putting Sydney’s international students at risk

Thousands of international students are bracing for the dual threat of wage theft and dodgy housing schemes as the federal government withdraws pandemic-era laws that allow them to work unlimited hours and authorities require onshore study.

Sean Stimson, an international student solicitor at Redfern Legal Centre, described June 30 as D-Day, when remote study from abroad would no longer be permitted at the same time the Department of Foreign Affairs restricts international students to 48 hours of work per fortnight.

International students are facing changes to laws around how much they can work.Credit:Steven Siewert

“The work restrictions are going to be implemented at the same time that all students can no longer study offshore,” Stimson said. “There’s more students, less income, and there’s already pressure on affordable rental properties. It is a recipe, I think, for disaster.”

Tens of thousands of international students have now returned to Sydney, reinvigorating the $12 billion industry in NSW.

A rule which restricted international students to working 40 hours per fortnight was lifted during the pandemic to address labour shortages. However, the federal government has announced it would reinstate a cap, at 48 hours per fortnight, on July 1.

Bosses of the country’s top companies had warned against reinstating the cap.

Tens of thousands of international students have now returned to Sydney.Credit:Steven Siewert

“If labour market conditions remain as they currently are, this change risks causing significant disruption in sectors such as retail and hospitality,” the Business Council of Australia wrote in a submission to a review of Australia’s migration system in December. “Unemployment is at some of its lowest levels in generations, while workforce participation is at record highs.”

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil did not answer the Herald’s questions. The Department of Home Affairs said in a statement: “The government considers 48 hours a fortnight as an appropriate balance between work and study, acknowledging that study is the primary purpose of the student visa.”

Stimson, however, is concerned that cutting international students’ working hours will reduce their ability to afford suitable housing in a city crushed by a rental crisis.

“Right now students are in a financial position to perhaps be able to pay the increases because they can work beyond 40 hours per fortnight, but when that is removed and they’re dropping back down, does that mean that the accommodation no longer becomes affordable?”

Advocates also argue many students will again be forced to work beyond the legal limit, which potentially exposes them to wage theft – where employers pay below minimum wage, often in cash to escape scrutiny – and become scared of reporting exploitation because they’re worried the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will cancel their visas. It also exposes them to overcrowded, substandard housing arrangements.

Before the pandemic restricted people from travelling to Australia, a 2019 survey of 2472 international students by the Migrant Worker Justice Initiative found four in 10 students did not report underpayment, sexual harassment and other issues at work because they feared complaining would affect their visa.

The authors of the ensuing report wrote that the removal of the 40-hour cap was the best way to address this concern. The survey found more than three-quarters of international students were paid below the minimum casual hourly wage.

There are 540,300 student visa holders in Australia, with another 129,300 student visa holders offshore, Home Affairs said. Their tuition fees help underwrite Australian universities.

In NSW, universities make $5.8 billion from student fees, and international students contribute $3.1 billion of that total, the NSW Audit office reports.

Stimson warned: “If the government and universities want to reap the benefit of the revenue that is generated, I think they need to do a little bit more to actually protect those students, so [Australia remains] a desirable destination.”

University of Sydney employment relations researcher Stephen Clibborn said the restriction on working hours was necessary to ensure the visa is used for its main purpose – education.

“Certainly, if you’re working more than 40 hours per fortnight, that’s going to put you at great risk of failing studies,” he said. “I am concerned that if you maintain a lifted restriction long-term, then it increases the incentive for temporary migrants and employers to treat this as a work visa primarily, and education is merely the ticket to ride.”

Clibborn said the government had acknowledged the increased cost of living for international students by lifting the cap from 40 hours to 48 a fortnight, and said the policy focus should be on ensuring they are paid the correct legal wage for every hour they worked.

“Students are better off earning more per hour than they have been, rather than simply working more hours.”

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