Taken to the cleaners: experiences of international students working in the Australian retail cleaning industry

27 Nov 2012

This report shows that some international students are being exploited and suffering racism in the workplace.

Last year, almost 300,000 people came from around the world to begin their studies in Australia. Many find they must work to support themselves and the government recognises that, allowing them to work for 40 hours a fortnight during term time.

There has been little research on the working experiences of international students in Australia. This is surprising given the plethora of media reports, evidence to inquiries and investigations pursued by the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) — so many of which have found that international students are frequently exploited.

In the retail cleaning industry, many international students — around half of whom are born in India — are exploited because the industry is in crisis. Barriers to entry are low, so new contractors can win business from large shopping centre owners like Westfield and Colonial First State.

Having won a cleaning contract at a low price, these operators soon find the easiest route to profitability is to intensify the workloads of the cleaners they employ.

This means demanding that cleaners do more work in less time, leading to extreme workloads that can impact upon the health and safety of their cleaners. Hygiene can also suffer, as cleaners are forced to take shortcuts.

It can also mean cutting pay or conditions. Or contractors can seek to deliberately underpay cleaners. In some cases, they do all three. Sham contracting and ignoring workplace laws are also a significant problem.

In fact, an FWO investigation into the cleaning industry in Victoria recently found that 44 per cent of audited employers were breaking workplace laws.

All these problems can be intensified because of the many sub-contractors that can stand between the ultimate client — the shopping centre owner — and the cleaner. With each looking to make a profit, less and less is left for the cleaners doing the work.

Shopping centre owners like Westfield also contribute to the crisis by insisting on cutting back on the value of their contracts, forcing contractors to shift an even greater burden on to cleaners.

International students are left bearing the brunt of this crisis, with the majority struggling to pay even their rent. A third also worked additional time without pay, exacerbating an already difficult financial situation.

Some are also asked to violate their visas, putting them at risk of deportation.

This report serves to highlight the need for shopping centre owners to support reform of the retail industry and end a crisis that is putting the welfare of its workers at risk.

Shopping centre cleaners themselves have been campaigning for fundamental reform of their industry, seeking an end to extreme workloads, low pay and a culture that fosters a lack of respect and, at times, discrimination.

This report was jointly launched by Victorian TAFE International and United Voice.

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