International student cleaners hit by rip-offs & racism: report

One may have seen Indian students working as cleaners in shopping malls and the thought may have occurred in some of us of how hard they work and that too at late hours. To see these students working in pitiable work situations one can’t help but feel empathy for them who in India may have servants at home even to fetch a glass of water. Once having landed here the saga of international students turns out to be a sad story as they face enormous pressures of working, studying and fending for themselves working in terrible jobs with long hours and exploited at every step of the way. Their sideward glances, the pressure under which they work shows on their faces and the body language they exude having got caught themselves in situations of no return. If they continue here they have to work hard to achieve what they came out to achieve and if they turn back they have no face to show having returned to India with loans to pay back. Now a report in Victoria proves the plight of students and the work exploitation that happens.

The report, by Victorian TAFE International (VTI) and United Voice, the Cleaners Union, found that students who come to Australia can find themselves face to face with bullying and abusive behaviour from unscrupulous cleaning contractors. International students working as cleaners in big shopping centres are being thrown into an ugly culture of racism and are being ripped-off by up to $250 a week, a new report finds.

The report reveals international students face shocking working conditions, including back-breaking workloads and poverty wages, and is set to increase the pressure on big shopping centre owners like Westfield to stamp out these unacceptable practices.

The report, by Victorian TAFE International (VTI) and United Voice, the Cleaners Union, found that students who come to Australia can also find themselves face to face with bullying and abusive behaviour from unscrupulous cleaning contractors.

“Every year hundreds of thousands of students come to Australia to study and experience a new culture. But many who work so hard to support their studies by working as cleaners in our shopping centres encounter the wrong kind of culture: one of rip-offs, racism, abuse and bullying,” says Jess Walsh, Victorian Secretary of United Voice.

The report, Taken to the Cleaners: Experiences of International Students Working in the Australian Retail Cleaning Industry, was based on surveys and interviews with students working as cleaners at some of our biggest and most popular shopping centres.

Nearly a quarter of the students surveyed work as cleaners in malls owned by Westfield, Australia’s largest mall owner, which recently reported annual profits of $1.5 billion.

“Mall owners like Westfield are enjoying bumper profits, but the industry remains a hive of exploitation and bullying. Now we know brutal workloads and poverty pay are not the only hallmarks of the industry   ”“ international students can add racism and abuse to the list.”

“This is a wake-up call for the likes of Westfield, which needs to embrace reform now. The treatment of international students is a stain on Australia’s reputation and a threat to our vital international education industry, which doesn’t need another scandal,” she adds.

United Voice today launches a website ( so shoppers can look up their local Westfield to see its impact on their community and how little it spends on cleaning ”“ and sign a petition to give back to the communities that keep it profitable.

International education is one of our top export earners, generating $15.1 billion in 2011 alone. Almost 300,000 students came from all over the world to study here last year.

Students are permitted to work for 20 hours a week, and many turn to the retail cleaning industry to support themselves as they study. Around half of the international students working as cleaners surveyed for the report were born in India.

They reported struggling with extreme workloads, and often found themselves starting early or working back without being paid for the extra work. A third of international students working as cleaners said they were not paid for the additional work they put in, and are often asked to work more hours than their visas allow ”“ putting them at risk of deportation.

International students also reported encountering ugly incidents of racism from bosses.

Said ”˜Dewan’: “If your skin is white you get the respect. If your skin is not white, you don’t get the respect ”“ simple and easy.”

Says Walsh: “International students are ambassadors for Australia because they return home to tell their families and friends about their experiences here. What sort of picture will they get when they hear distressing tales of exploitation and racism?”

The report also includes a study of job ads run on the Gumtree website, popular among students looking for work, and made some shocking discoveries. Of the ads analysed on the site, 93 per cent were likely to be underpaying cleaners, by as much as $250 a week.

“Unscrupulous bosses are preying on international students who are often in no position to stand up for their rights. It’s time shopping centre owners put an end to this exploitation, not only of international students, but of all cleaners who work so hard at our shopping centres.”


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