Imagine you’re an international student in Melbourne. Life in a strange country is hard enough without the burden of all those sky-high living expenses—$200 for weekly rent and $10 for a decent meal.
You’re lucky to find a job at a Chinese restaurant, but the boss only offers you cash-in-hand, and no working contract. The hourly pay rate varies from $10 during probation to $12 if—and only if—you know how to make coffee and offer desserts to guests after their meal.
Eventually, you may earn up to $14, given that you have ‘the charm’ and take time to pour water for every guest. Even if it means ignoring the kitchen guys who keep punching the bell and leaving dozens of dishes waiting to be served. And that is still way lower than legal requirements.
The boss might also tell you to work on Easter—for the same rate—because “We Asians don’t celebrate Easter!” Holidays like these are big money for restaurant owners, with more people likely to eat out, stay late and order those $10 desserts.
“Don’t just stand there! Clean up table B3,” scolds a veteran waiter, who has been working for two years, making $500 a week and can hold three plates with one arm. He quickly flashes his automatic smile to the regular couple that always come on Sundays.
“Hello! How are you today?”
“Great, thanks! How are you?” the genteel lady smiles back. “Is [the owner] here today?”
“Yes, drunk as always.”
The lady laughs and starts to order. “Ok, we’ll have—”
“No worries! I know what you always have. It’ll be ready in 15 minutes.”
This type of charm, plus his fluency in English, gives the veteran waiter more job security than ever—and a lot more tips. Unlike the kitchen guys, who always talk in Chinese and only speak broken English… when drunk.
This scenario is commonplace among international students. Language is among the many glass ceilings that prevent students from taking more secure jobs at well-established hotels, restaurants and shops, where staff should be paid at least the minimum wage according to the law.
To make ends meet, they turn to smaller venues, where the owner speaks their mother tongue. Sadly, it’s those businesses that try to squeeze every dollar out of the students and avoid paying taxes.
Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants in Melbourne are notorious for poor pay rates. The flat rate for “bưng phở” (waiters at Vietnamese noodle houses) is $8–$10 per hour. At small restaurants in Chinatown, rates are similar.
“You’ll work like a dog and they’ll pay you low,” says a Chinese restaurant owner in the suburbs, who is proud of paying his waiters $14 per hour. It might be well below legal requirements, but for many students it’s more enticing than rates elsewhere.
“International students can be vulnerable, and it is important to raise awareness among the cohort of minimum lawful entitlements,” said Natalie James from FairWork Ombudsman.
During 2014, 150 international students have contacted her office for help with unfair wages and mistreatment at work. The agency is active in industries with significant numbers of international student employees, including hospitality, cleaning, convenience stores and trolley collecting.
“The reality is that most international students need to work to support themselves while studying, and the best defence against being underpaid or treated unfairly is to know your rights,” added James.
FairWork Ombudsman staff will be visiting international student associations, universities, TAFE colleges and private education providers in an effort to raise awareness about the work rights of international students.
First published on Farrago Magazine, Edition Six, 2015.