Underpaid overseas students: the silent majority

Overseas students in Australia are a large group who may want to achieve their dreams on this land. In fact, the reality is harder than they expect.

International students work in a Chinese restaurant. Photoed by Jenny Xu.

Real hard life: majority of overseas students


Monthly infographic from the department of education and training of Australian government.


As the department of education and training of Australian governmentreported, there are increasing number of international students study abroad in Australia which has come up to 500,000 this year. Most of the international students are from China (31%) followed by India (12%) and Nepal (6%). According to The-Australian-Context-of-Student-Mental-Health-Report, the main reason of students’ mental issues is attributed to financial stress (84.8%). In the social media platform, overseas students share their wonderful life in Australia. In reality, an astonishing number of overseas students not only face to the study pressure but also the living pressure.




Average annual university fees for International students from Forbes statista.


Due to the high tuition and living fee, many overseas students choose to take a part-time job. Even though the study is challengeable for overseas students, they also want to share the burden of their parents. What they have not realized is that the working experience is possible the beginning of their nightmare.




According to the labour law in Australia, the minimum wage is currently $18.29 per hour before tax. The Migrant Worker Justice Initiative reports a Wage Theft in Australia that 43% of international students are underpaid and the wage is around $15 or less per hour which is much lower than $18.29. Apart from the issue of underpayment, the working conditions of many overseas students are poor. Many international students who work in Australia states that they are not only under exploitation, but also suffers from sexually harass, abuse and discrimination against by their employers.


Underpaid has become a silent common phenomenon

7-Eleven court penalties for exploiting workers tops $1 million on July 2017. Source from google.com.

Australians may not have been familiar with this issue until 7-Eleven court penalties for exploiting workers tops $1 million. In the overseas students’ community, it is widely known. According to Australian labour law, international students can only work 20 hours a week. In fact, most of international student works more than 20 hours per week, which result in their reluctance to charge their employers with fear of losing student visa. There are thousands of international students satisfied with the current job, even they are underpaid and exploited. They need to pay their course costs by themselves. Meanwhile, a great number of students are paid cash in hand, so they do not have any evidence to sue their employers if they are underpaid.

Rainie, a Chinese students studying in the University of Sydney, states that she had underpaid for a long time and abused by her employer as well. She worked in a Chinese restaurant for several months and quit this part-time job in the final week in last semester.

International students work in a Chinese restaurant. Photoed by Jenny Xu.

“I worked in a Chinese hotpot restaurant in Hurstville. The wage is $13 per hour in this restaurant. I need to do all kinds of work which is more difficult than I imagine before, such as carrying the heavy pot, taking out trash can full with kitchen garbage and taking away the food waste and clean the table quickly after customers finished their meal. The main reason why I quit this job is that my boss always shouts at me without any reason. I can do difficult tasks but can’t endure disrespect.”Rainie said.

Most service industries require the staff have fluent communication skills. In fact, for many overseas students, the main barrier is the language. Rainie said helplessly that She knows the minimum wage per hour in Australia but she has no other options.

“Actually, I know $13 per hour is illegal.I have to receive this job in Chinese restaurant because the main customers are Chinese in this restaurant so they don’t require high Standard English skills. In fact, I have sent my resume to some local restaurants but I failed. I think I don’t have any advantage when I compete with the local students. ”Rainie said.

Not only Rainie but also her friends, all of them are failed to get a job in local restaurants which might provide more comfortable working condition and higher wage. They also have looked for help from the university but it is not helpful.

“I have attended some career workshops in university. I found it was useless because the workshops were about the communication skills in company. For many students like me, we want to know how to get a job not how to get along with colleagues.”she said.

Rainnie have searched for jobs in university’s website, but there are no difference compared with other jobs website.

“There are not so many jobs in university’s website, and requirements of many jobs is the local students and no certain jobs for overseas students. I wish the university can provide some inside jobs which not require language skills so strictly.”said Rainie.

Even though most of international students know they have right to work fairly,they become silent due to lacking of knowledge of rights, language barrier and finance pressure. This issue will continue for a long time if everyone ignores their power to change it.

Everyone has the power to change

As a huge amount of international students study in Australia, there are some related organizations they can seek for help. The fair work ombudsman is an independent agency of the government of Australia, which can provide free help to international students who working in Australia.

Screenshot of the fair work ombudsman official website.

The inspector Natalie Mathias from the fair work ombudsman said that they have received help requirements from international students in the past.

“Overseas students told us they suffered from the unfair work and under exploitation of the employer. We helped them to recognize their rights and provided protection to them. ” Mathias said.

Mathias also referred to their official website which is a convenient platform for workers get related working information.

“We have an official website, everyone can search for the information what they want, such as pay, contract, tax, ending employment, awards and their rights as well. If someone have been underpaid, they can use our pay calculator to account how much they should be paid.” Mathias said.

International students should not be fear of losing students visa and be silent, they will be under protection if they report their unfair working experience.

“Many international students are afraid of losing their student visa if they speak out their unfair working experience. Actually, we can take protection for them even if they are in breach of their visa. International student workers has the same rights as other workers. We encourage students to stand out and report their employers about their exploitation.” Mathias said.

There are some organizations you can get help:

Before you start your new job:

  • Know your rights
  • Prepare for your first day
  • Know your responsibilities
  • Resolve issues
  • Know the rules about unpaid work
  • Read our helpful resources

When you have unfair working experience, what you could do:

  • Work out how long the employee has been underpaid
  • Work out how much the employee was actually paid
  • Work out how much the employee should have been paid
  • Calculate how much the employee has been underpaid
  • Backpay the employee
  • Keep up-to-date with future wage increases

4 Warning Signs from The fair work ombudsman

4 Warning Signs

This episode outlines four warning signs for young people where their rights and/or entitlements might be taken advantage.

How to Address Being Treated Unfairly at Work from The fair work ombudsman

How to Address Being Treated Unfairly at Work

This episode provides viewers with three steps to follow to find a resolution for being treated unfairly at work.

Notice:The Fair Work Commission has announced a 3.5% increase to minimum wages. The increase applies from 1 July 2018.


Jenny Xu
About Jenny Xu 5 Articles
Current master students of media practice in the university of Sydney. Have bachelor degree of broadcasting in Guangzhou university. Intern as a journalist at Guangdong TV station.

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