International Students Fall Through OH&S Gap

Back pain, fatigue and wounds; complaints associated with a war-weary soldier in the line of fire, perhaps. But a fruit shop employee? If you happen to be an international student struggling to make ends meet and ignorant of standard occupational health and safety rights, then yes.

Vikram*, a Nepalese IT student, is one of a number of employees who manually work with loads of up to 10 kilograms during a six hour shift at a suburban fruit shop. They are not supplied with any protective equipment nor do they get a half an hour break as per the law.

The three days of training he received before commencing his job thoroughly tested his physical strength and work ethic, but did nothing to address workers’ rights and OH&S procedures.

And, too fearful to give his real name to this reporter because he regularly exceeds the weekly work limit of twenty hours set for international students, Vikram isn’t about to ask any questions.

His fear of the Department of Immigration raiding his workplace to detain illegal workers is not unique. A significant number of overseas students travel to Australia with an unrealistic expectation of earning their living costs and tuition fees through part-time work. Many compromise their personal safety by undertaking cash-in-hand jobs with little to no regard for OH&S standards in order to meet expenses.

The NSW government WorkCover Authority which assesses workers’ claims to compensation confirmed that workplaces are only inspected when a complaint is filed against an employer. When asked about the right of an illegal worker, a WorkCover spokesman said that they are able to claim worker’s compensation but, once their identity is disclosed, they would be reported to immigration.

Dr. Susan Jamieson, a researcher of OH&S and Equity at Sydney University, is a critic of this government policy which she believes creates distrust between authority and international students who then turn to illegal and unsafe employment.

“If people are working illegally they are not going to complain. They don’t have any power at all,” she said.

“It’s quite an invidious position for these people. They may not be paid sick leave and other entitlements that Australian workers are entitled to.”

Even though workers unions acknowledge overseas temporary workers holding 457 Visas which are sponsored by employers, they do not campaign for bridging visas for these workers should they be identified as illegal. Both the Australian Council of Trade Unions and its state branch, Unions NSW, were unavailable for comment.

Ralf Hartmann, a senior risk management consultant at OHS Australia, expressed his concern that many people travelling to Australia are not aware of their rights and responsibilities. He asserts that illegal migrant workers have the same legal rights as Australian workers and cannot be unfairly dismissed.

Rather than employers or employees, Mr Hartmann blames the government for the lack of education: “The biggest problem migrants’ face is that government is a mess.”

“When someone comes to Australia, the first thing that should happen is the induction process to happen for that student to understand the law within this country. But that is not occurring,” he said.

Dr Wagdy Latif, a local GP at Dulwich Medical Centre treats three to four cases of occupational injury on a daily basis.

“Thirty per cent of my patients are ethnic workers,” he said. “It’s because of the nature of the [workers injury-based] practice, the suburb and the fact that we speak a second language.”

Dr. Latif finds back and neck strain to be the most common injuries suffered by ethnic workers and attributes the cause to the often heavy workloads handled along with repetitive bending and lifting. According to Dr. Latif, lifting weight over five kilograms for any length of time is not recommended and says workers should be supplied with assistive machinery instead of having to rely on manual handling.

His employer’s failure to supply either of these to Vikram means, beyond his short term injuries, Vikram could be facing much more damaging disorders in the long run. Dr. Latif has warned Vikram’s mild back pain could result in chronic pain and arthritis of the spine.

Vikram worries about the long term impact his work may have on his health but is reluctant to voice his concern to his employers. He has been told that, as an illegal worker, not only could his employment be terminated without a notice or compensation, but any reports involving him would also result in deportation back to his Nepal.

The reality seems to suggest otherwise. But, back to fruit-packing, Vikram and the many international students like him in Australia aren’t likely to realise.

*Name has been changed at interviewee’s request.

The article was previously published on Reportage Online

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