No more working cap for international students on COVID-19 frontline. Is that exploitation?

© Provided by ABC Health International student Srishti Chatterjee would like to see the working cap removed for all industries.  (Supplied)

The federal government has lifted working caps for international students in “essential sectors” during the pandemic, but some students and advocates say the change is exploitative. 

International students can temporarily work beyond the usual cap of 40 hours per fortnight but only in aged care, the health sector, hospitality, tourism, agriculture, at National Disability Insurance Scheme providers and supermarkets in lockdown areas.

Srishti Chatterjee, an international student from India, said the policy was unfair and encouraged international students to put themselves at higher risk of catching COVID-19.

The 20-year-old works in social justice — a sector still restricted by the 40 hour per fortnight working cap.

“I’ve had to decline jobs that I have gotten that I have been absolutely qualified for just because it was full-time employment and I cannot work full time,” they said.

The University of Melbourne student, who studies a Bachelor of Arts majoring in sociology and media, said international students should be given working rights that afford them more choice.

“If you wanted to help international students you would let them take up any job for any number of hours in whatever sector they want,” they said.

The restriction on international students’ working hours was first lifted in the aged care sector last year, however initially the new rules only applied to those already working in aged care.

The Department of Home Affairs later applied the exemption to the other sectors.

Last week, the restriction was lifted for international students in aged care regardless of when they started working in the sector. 

Council of International Students Australia president Belle Lim said that to her knowledge, the government did not consult international student organisations on the changes.

Ms Lim said given how reluctant the government has been to help international students during the pandemic, the change “certainly borders on exploitation of international students”.

She said they were being used to fill economic holes created by border closures.

“The government has resorted to incentivising international students to take up those roles usually filled by migrant workers or other types of temporary visa holders,” she said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said the policy change was designed to “fill immediate labour shortages in critical industries” and provide employment opportunities for those who have become unemployed as a result of COVID-19.

The department would regularly review the change, the spokesperson said. 

A 2020 study by Unions NSW measuring the impact of the pandemic on temporary migrants found 31 per cent of surveyed international students said they did not have enough money for rent.

Meanwhile, 46 per cent said they regularly skipped meals due to financial constraints. 

National Union of Students (NUS) president Zoe Rangathanan said international students were now being forced to choose between putting themselves at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 or living in poverty. 

Ms Rangathanan said the government could better support international students by giving them access to payments like Youth Allowance and Austudy and removing the working cap for all sectors. 

“We know that international students are still living in poverty and so it doesn’t make sense for the government to place a 20-hour limit on them to work at all,” she said.

Judy Ann Imperial, an international student from the Philippines who was already working in the aged care sector, has been working full time since the change.

She now works 76 hours per fortnight at a Sydney nursing home, and uses the extra money to pay her tuition, rent and bills.

The 35-year-old was recently forced to isolate for two weeks after a colleague caught COVID-19. She and the other staff and patients had all been vaccinated and tested negative.

Despite the risks, Ms Imperial said she was grateful to be able to work more than 40 hours per fortnight.

Her Bachelor of Nursing at the University of Wollongong cost more than $15,000 per semester, so working alongside her studies was a necessity, she said. 

“My family is actually sending a lesser amount of money when I started working more than 40 hours every fortnight,” she said.

“It was a huge relief for them.”

However, Gabriela D’Souza, a senior economist at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, said the removal of the cap only for sectors with elevated risks of contracting COVID-19 “doesn’t make for great policy”.

Ms D’Souza said the cap should be removed entirely, as it would give students more opportunities to work in industries relevant to their careers while they were at university.

Australia had generally treated international students poorly during the pandemic, which could lead to a drop in enrolments, she said.

“I keep asking myself, how are we going to be able to sustain this when we are facing global competition from the likes of Canada and the UK?”

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