International student cleaners exploited by shopping centre owners: report

A NEW report suggests international student cleaners are being exploited by shopping centre owners in Australia. Grace Yew reports.

Photo: nazreth via

A report released today suggests international students working as cleaners are being exploited by shopping centre owners.

The report, compiled by Victorian TAFE International and services industry union, United Voice, explores a variety of student rights violations, from poverty wages to abusive supervisors.

The Victorian Secretary of United Voice, Jess Walsh, says many of the hundreds of thousands of students who come to Australia to study and experience a new culture are being taken advantage of.

“Many who work so hard to support their studies by working as cleaners in our shopping centres encounter the wrong kind of culture: one of rip-offs, racism, abuse and bullying,” she says.

Around half of the cleaners in Victorian shopping centres are international students, half are Indian, and 23 per cent work at Westfield  shopping centres.

For the report, Taken to the cleaners: Experiences of international students working in the Australian retail cleaning industry, 41 international students and recent graduates working as cleaners were interviewed.

Financial fears

The report indicates high costs of living in Australia drive many inexperienced students to undertake part-time or casual jobs with cleaning contractors, who then overload them with stressful work and violate their basic rights.

Shopping centre owners have reportedly ignored workplace laws or implemented sham contracts in a bid to drive down the prices of their contracts as well.

They sometimes do not provide workers with appropriate chemicals or cleaning equipment, forcing students to compromise their own health, safety and hygiene.

Underpayment was also highlighted as another major problem.

Most local cleaners earn around $17 per hour, which is little more than the minimum wage but international students are reportedly earning even less.

Their weekly salaries amount to $325.86 after tax and they often do not receive full payment.

The report suggests most student cleaners are denied anywhere between 10 and 57 per cent of their salary as well.

This exacerbates the financial burden placed on international students, many of whom struggle to afford rent, bills and even medical expenses.

The report describes holidays for students as an “unaffordable luxury.”

Employers are also allegedly often shifting pay in an attempt to circumvent visa restrictions and get students to work more than 20 hours a week.

Sri Lankan student Thilan is one victim of such manipulation.

“I needed the money, [so] I worked…otherwise they won’t give me shifts.”

A culture of racism?

Although some students are being given weekend shifts to allow them to earn more money, the report suggests they have been treated disrespectfully, with some threatened with dismissal.

The report shows 40 per cent of student employees are verbally mistreated by their employers and banned from joining workers’ unions to seek redress.

The abuse is allegedly based on their skin colour, nationality or gender.

“If your skin is white you get the respect,” says a student named Dewan* from Bangladesh.

“If your skin is not white, you don’t get the respect – simple and easy.

 “International students [are treated] as a servant, you know?”

Job advertisements are allegedly similarly discriminatory.

The report also analysed a Gumtree advertisement for cleaners which specifically stated “no Indians or Asians” need apply.

Gumtree is a popular site for students to find work in Australia, and 50 per cent of its retail cleaning advertisements demanded an ABN – which allows workers to operate as a stand-alone business – or was based on a “contract.”

These advertisements often attract workers who are unclear about their rights or are in need of financial aid – most of whom are believed to be international students.

Photo: Geoffrey Whiteway via

What should be done?

The harsh reality is the retail cleaning industry appears to be in crisis and is regularly ignoring the rights of its international student workers.

Fortunately, shopping centre cleaners around Australia are campaigning for a safer, more rewarding industry for its workers.

United Voice has also launched a website where consumers can see the impact of their local Westfield on their community, as well as how little the retail giant spends on cleaning.

But there are still ongoing problems. Chief among them is the government’s and shopping centres’ collective failure to educate international students about their rights.

Students who are unsure of their workplace rights are easily exploited and may not know how to resolve the issue of their mistreatment.

If a workplace issue arises, United Voice suggests students consult their local union, the Fair Work Ombudsman and government departments.

Education providers should also provide more resources with which to tackle these important issues.

More importantly, change needs to come from within the retail industry itself, which Ms Walsh describes as “a hive of exploitation and bullying.”

“This is a wake-up call for the likes of Westfield, which needs to embrace reform now,” she says.

“The treatment of international students is a stain on Australia’s reputation and a threat to our vital international education industry, which doesn’t need another scandal.”

In 2011, Australia accepted almost 300, 000 international students into its universities, vocational training and English language courses.

This generated $15.1 billion for Australia in a single year, with national mall owner Westfield enjoying annual profits of $1.5 billion.

Given international students’ importance to the Australian economy and society, it is essential that this exploitation be addressed soon.

The full report is available here.

 *Name changed to respect privacy

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