Thursday, July 16, 2009

Australia: Recruiting Students To Work As Slave Labour

Racial attacks are not the only thing international students have to contend with in Australia. They also work like slaves in horrifying conditions to earn in order to pay their tuition and save money to repay loans they have taken back home. For this they pay a very heavy price. In fact, it is coming to light that working for long hours hardly leaves them enough time to pursue their studies – the reason they are in Australia in the first place.

Now there is evidence of a scam targeting international students who are the victims of “the new slave traders” Down Under. An investigation by the Australian newspaper 'The Age' has revealed that students who are lured to Australia by glossy advertisements in newspapers and other media with tall claims of “world class” facilities and faculty and degrees/diplomas that are “internationally recognised” are nothing but a fig leaf to cover a new slave trade.

The Age reported yesterday (July 15) that thousands of overseas students are being made to work for nothing — or even pay to work — by businesses exploiting loopholes in immigration and education laws in what experts describe as a system of economic slavery.

Education is now worth more than $12 billion annually and ranks as Australia’s third largest export, ahead of tourism and just behind coal and iron ore. Nearly 100,000 Indian youth are studying in Australia, second in number only to those from China. In fact, education has become a cornerstone of India-Australia bilateral relationship, with more than 97,000 Indian students currently enrolled in educational institutions Down Under.

This vast pool of unpaid labour was created in 2005 when vocational students were required to do 900 hours work experience. There was no requirement that they be paid. Overseas students remain bound to the system as completion of such courses became a near-guaranteed pathway to permanent residency in Australia.

Since then the number of foreign students enrolled in the sector has leapt from 65,120 to 173,432 last year — about half of all overseas students.

The changes have created a $15 billion education industry, as comparable countries don't offer residency. But experts, teachers and students say many of the private college courses are little more than “visa mills”. Since 2001 the number of private colleges has risen from 664 to 4892.

Citing the findings from a study by academics from Monash and Melbourne universities – both Tier 1 institutions that attract thousands of students – Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) reported that almost 60 per cent of the international students in the state of Victoria could be receiving below minimum wage rates.

The study, based on interviews with 200 international students enrolled in nine universities across the state, found as many as 58.1 per cent students surveyed were paid below $15 an hour, with 33.9 per cent receiving less than $10 an hour. The study also confirmed what has been long known, that many of these full-fee paying international students are often pressured to take jobs not wanted by local workers.

Besides driving cabs, overseas students largely work in accommodation and food services, retail trade, health care and social assistance, administrative and support services.

One university-educated overseas student to spent $22,000 and two years doing a hairdressing course she would never use, just to secure her residency. She did her 900 hours' work experience in a salon closely linked to the college, where students are required to pay a $1000 non-refundable bond to use the equipment.

Other colleges charge their students thousands of dollars in “placement fees” only to then advertise their supply of free labour to local business. And a black market has sprung up in fraudulent letters of completion.

A 23-year-old Pakistani student Faisal Durrani's case has become a cause celebre among international students. After working in slave galley conditions, Durrani stood up for his rights and exposed the mistreatment of workers from the subcontinent even as Australia reaps rich dividends with full fee-paying international students.

Durrani, who is suing several companies for being treated as a “slave”, was paid only $1.26 an hour for more than 150 hours of work as a security guard at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne.

“To me it was an act of slavery, we have been treated like slaves,” he told the media. Durrani said he was paid $200 for the 158 hours of work at last year's Australian Open in a statement of claim lodged at the Melbourne Magistrates Court.

“First, we often see cases where a worker is not paid correctly. It’s not so common to see a worker barely paid at all. Second, our client is a vulnerable worker - a visitor to Australia trying to scrape together an income while he completes his studies,” Durrani’s solicitor, Andrew Weinmann of Maurice Blackburn, said.

Durrani says he was also threatened with violence for pursuing to recover his wages. He is now seeking about $4,000 in wages besides pursuing interest, costs and penalties that could run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Incidentally, Maurice Blackburn is a leading law firm, which is also acting on behalf of former Indian doctor Mohammed Haneef in the judicial inquiry into his 2007 failed “terrorism” case. Haneef's case was in fact only the trailer of the sordid saga of rampant racism in Australia, which otherwise claims to promote “multiculturalism”.

Another earlier investigation by The Age revealed that an Indian college head who also owns a 7-Eleven shop allegedly had Indian students working there for no pay. Details have also emerged of a black economy in fraudulent $5000 certificates available to international students from rogue Melbourne colleges. The state's education regulator, the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority, is investigating at least one college linked to the 7-Eleven.

“If you wanted to make a corrupt system, this is absolutely how you would do it,” Sydney immigration agent Karl Konrad said. He said the system began to go bad when the requirement for 900 hours' work was introduced.

“You've got the agents and the proprietors realising that there is a flood of free labour, but, of course, the demand for placements outstrips the supply, so even if they wanted to take all that free labour they can't use it all,” said Konrad, the former Victorian police officer famed for his whistle-blowing exposure of corruption among fellow officers. “It's all about supply and demand.”

He said a trade in fraudulent documents had evolved with employers and agents selling students verification they had completed their 900 hours. One agent said charged $15-20,000 for such paperwork. “They are slaves,” he said. “They work for free from 11 o'clock to 11 o'clock, no breaks, no nothing. They have to pay the owner for the paperwork. They want to stay here. They will do anything.”

He described the entire industry as a racket. “They work with no workers' compensation, no insurance. If they are injured at work, bad luck.” Konrad said the colleges and employers had a dangerous amount of power over their students, who face deportation if their enrolments are cancelled. Even the pretence of education has been abandoned at many colleges, say students and teachers.

One cooking trainer said if he did not keep passing students, migration agents would stop sending them to the college where he worked and his job would disappear. “As for this 900 hours' work experience, at least 60 per cent of my students were paying for it. It made a lot of Indian restaurant owners very rich,” he said. “Two years ago a student would shudder if you asked them if they were here for PR (permanent residency). Now it's blatant.”

Konrad said many students had taken out loans or mortgages back home to pay the exorbitant fees. “If you have taken a loan in Indian dollars of $20,000 to study here, that is going to take you nearly 20 years to pay off in India. “At least if they make it into Australia, they can pay that off within a reasonable time frame.”

So, as more and more skeletons tumble out of the Australian education system's cupboard, it has become absolutely clear that Down Under students are not human beings, just “consumers” and the degrees/diplomas they are offered in return for fat tuition fees are mere “products”.

After the racial attacks on international students in May and June stirred up a hornets' nest, Trade Minister Simon Crean declared: “It’s not just the quality of the product, it’s the safe environment in which we bring people” that was Australia's USP.

Just last week Colin Walters, a senior Australian government official who is currently leading a high-level delegation to India to reassure Indian people about safety in Australia in the wake of a series of attacks on Indian students, told the Times of India (TOI), "Australia is basically a safe country. We are doing our best to control the crimes. Indian people are extremely welcome into our country." Seeking to dispel the notion that Australia is unsafe for overseas students, Walters said the Kangaroo country is much safer than several other countries in the world

But truth be told, the Australian political establishment has nothing but contempt for the well-being of ordinary students, whether they are from India, Australia, or anywhere else. The attacks have been going on for months, with nothing of substance being done or said until now.

The real concern is to ensure that the highly lucrative flow of education tuition payments into the country continues. International students are ruthlessly exploited, having to pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition fees while being denied basic rights afforded to Australian students, such as concession fares on public transport.

Roger And Out

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