Paying the price for our convenience

Behind the façade of convenience stores lies an inconvenient truth: it’s the store workers who are paying the price for our 24/7 appetite for bottled water, donuts, and slushy frozen treats.  The recent expose of exploited 7-Eleven workers, many of who are international students, has highlighted what we’ve always known: being a worker and a migrant means that you are more likely to fall through the occupational cracks.

As the latest 7-Eleven expose has shown, migrants such as international students (they might be on temporary visas, but they’re still migrants) continue to be exploited in the workplace and marginalised in workplace laws, policies and practices.  The 20-hour per week work restriction dictated by student visa conditions, for example, has forced the majority of students into low-paid sectors and has created a situation in which gross underpayment of wages, employer bullying and intimidation of international student workers thrives.

Employers have been known to threaten migrant workers on temporary visas with deportation if they report employers’ illegal work practices. It’s a bizarre Catch 22: if an international student works more than 20 hours (most likely because they’re chronically underpaid in the first place), it gives unscrupulous employers with the necessary leverage to threaten, to abuse and to exploit. Current workplace laws can’t be enforced when there are visa breaches.  Such a perverse situation leaves female international students (and all women on temporary visas for that matter), at an increased risk of violence and abuse at the hands of their employer. As another investigative reportrevealed, female migrant workers on holiday working visas were subjected to sexual harassment and abuse.

It’s important to remember that migrant workers are not born vulnerable, they’re made vulnerable by a host of systemic factors.  Unlike Australian-born workers, migrant workers on temporary visas are placed at the intersection of employment, education, immigration, health and safety policies. The complex interactions of each of these areas places workers, especially women, in specific positions of vulnerability.  Lack of knowledge of workplace rights, lack of support networks and lack of access to health care entitlements make the health and wellbeing of migrant workers poorer. Tightening and enforcing workplace laws are one thing, but governments also need to ensure that other policies such as those relating to visa status and health don’t contribute to the vulnerability of workers.

There are 1.3 million workers in Australia on a visa (enough workers to fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground thirteen times over), and this should make us pay attention to the ways in which migrant workers contribute to our daily lives.  The convenience of having our offices cleaned and the convenience of having readily available fresh produce at the supermarket shouldn’t come at the expense of migrant workers’ rights and safety.

International students working in Australia can find useful information and assistance viaFair Works’ website and Facebook page.