Overworked and underpaid

30 March 2017

The Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) may investigate the alleged underpayment of international students by some campus food outlets in Union House.

Similar to the recently uncovered nationwide exploitation of 7-Eleven workers, University of Melbourne students may be getting paid significantly below minimum wage.

The University and Union House tenancy operator MU Student Union Ltd (MUSUL) invited the FWO to assist in speaking to all vendors in Union House about their legal obligations as employers. Tenants were also informed of the possible occurrence of a spot audit commission into their stores during 2017.

The move comes after advocacy from several groups at the University. Independent student group, Malaysian Progressives, contacted the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) with this claim on behalf of mistreated students last year. The NTEU then encouraged the University and MUSUL to intervene and alert the FWO of these accusations.

Manager of the University of Melbourne Student Union’s (UMSU) Advocacy and Legal Division, Phoebe Churches, confirms that multiple students have also approached them seeking assistance.

“The problem is that all of the aggrieved students were studying on international student visas,” Churches said.

“The very low wages mean that these students routinely work in excess of their allowed hours in order to earn enough income
to live on.”

The UMSU Legal Service provides students with extensive advice regarding their options in the event of workplace mistreatment. They can also aid students in lodging a formal complaint with the FWO.

“Some students indicated that their employers had directly threatened to report them to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection if they complained,” Churches said.

MUSUL was the body previously managing Union House tenancies, including food vendor leases. Broader changes at the University, unrelated to this issue, will see the University take on tenancy management from 2017, with MUSUL winding down its operations. Union House itself is also set to wind down in the next few years and be replaced by a new student precinct.

However, tenants remain independent businesses, employing staff autonomously under the obligations of the Australian Fair Work Act. This means MUSUL’s and the University’s power is limited in terms of intervening, especially considering any formal complaints are yet to be lodged.

“We can’t demand to see people’s employment records,” MUSUL CEO Simon Napthine said, speaking on behalf of both MUSUL and the University.

Napthine encourages any students with concerns to report them to authorities.

A former employee of Union House’s Express Kebabs, who wishes to remain anonymous, is amongst those claiming to be too afraid to lodge a complaint with the FWO.

The employee claims they were underpaid with cash-in-hand for several months in 2016 and received no penalty rates. During this period, a co-worker reached out to the Young Workers Centre (YWC), a Union-backed advocacy and legal centre.

“Before the YWC (issued a letter of demand to my employer), we were paid eight to ten dollars per hour on an average of six to seven hours. Afterwards, the pay increased to 15 dollars per hour, but the hours were shorter,” the employee said.

“So in the end, we would still be paid around the same amount.”

$17.01 is the award rate for an 18-year-old, casual fast food worker. It is $19.44 for a 19-year-old and $21.88 for a 20-year-old.

Express Kebabs suggested they have since raised their pay rates above the Australian minimum wage, but this is yet to be confirmed.

Malaysian Progressives produced a booklet to distribute on campus informing international students of their rights as workers.

“Casual racism pushes them towards underpaid work. They’re exploiting our lower standards of English and our not being aware of local employment law,” Malaysian Progressives member Jason Wong said.

On a larger scale, the Victorian Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) are working on a similar scheme.

In combination with unions in the Asia-Pacific, the SDA are aiming to ensure international students are aware of their legal rights when working in Australia.

Student representatives remain concerned, including UMSU Students’ Councillor Molly Willmott, who initially raised the issue at Students’ Council late last year.

“We must look into fixing this issue moving forward into the last few years at Union House and the transition to the student precinct,” she said.

The UMSU Legal Service offers free advice and assistance to all enrolled students of the University of Melbourne. For enquiries about workplace rights and entitlements, call: 0468 720 668.

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