Student exploitation: Don’t get caught up in dirty dealings at work

A RECENT report by trade union United Voice reveals the lack of knowledge about work rights is making some international student cleaners easy prey for unscrupulous subcontractors. Beatrice Foong reports.


international student cleaners exploited

International student cleaners are at risk of being exploited by employers who pay them below minimum wage and do not respect employee work rights, according to a recent report by workers union United Voice.

The report, which included results from a survey of 550 office cleaners based in Melbourne, found many international student know “shockingly” little about their employment rights.

Feedback from 41 international student contractors interviewed for the survey highlighted concerns relating to job security, racism, harassment, extreme workload, bullying and unpaid overtime work.

Related story: Student exploitation: Fair Work Ombudsman targets shoddy cleaning contractors

International students make up 56 per cent of the cleaning industry, a sector that is represented largely by a migrant workforce. Notably, the report showed that a large number of these student cleaners live only slightly above the poverty line by earning an estimated $325.86 per week, after tax.

The report also investigated the practices of cleaning contractors that had committed to the Clean Start enterprise agreement in 2009. It found certain contractors had misused subcontracting as a means to cut labour costs. These cleaning contractors were able to maintain as profits, the surplus resulting from the subcontracting company underpaying their employees.

Data collected by United Voice showed six out of twelve Clean Start cleaning contractors were subcontracting. In one case, Fair Work Australia ordered an audit of a company’s payroll after a company manager was heard boasting about concealing business documents from a union inspection on employment conditions.

Related story: International student cleaners exploited by shopping centre owners: report

The report also found that some subcontracting companies recruit international student cleaners and register them using a Australian Business Number (ABN) instead of an employee’s Tax File Number (TFN), in order to present them as ‘independent contractors’ not directly employed by the cleaning companies.

This intentional concealment is known as ‘sham contracting’, for which companies can be fined. Most subcontractors who work permanent part-time or fill in on a casual basis were found to be paid ‘cash-in-hand’, an unreliable form of remuneration that fails to guarantee job security.

Another point of contention raised in the report involved the unequal treatment of subcontractors compared to cleaners who are directly employed by the company. While they both perform the same tasks, the report found that subcontractors frequently do not receive the same wages or incentives. This has been identified as a cause of resentment among international student cleaners.

The rights of international student cleaners has long been a cause for concern, with reports of rights violations, underpayments and unsafe work conditions risking the reputation of both the cleaning industry and also Australia’s international education sector.

United Voice has called for the monitoring of employment practices, as well as raising awareness about cleaners’ work rights, as means to end exploitation in the cleaning industry.

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