Timna Jacks, 04 November 2015

EXCLUSIVE

Victoria’s reputation as an international student hub could soon be trashed if the federal government fails to extend a visa amnesty to foreign students who have been exploited by 7-Eleven, warned state Minister for Training and Skills, Steve Herbert.

In announcing a $300,000 funding investment for free legal services and other support for foreign students on Wednesday, Mr Herbert called on the federal government to clarify whether there would be a blanket amnesty for foreign students who breached their visa by working more hours than legally permitted at the convenience store empire.

“It’s still unclear whether students who come forward with their experiences, who breach their 20-hour work limit, whether there will be amnesty for them,” Mr Herbert said.

“The Commonwealth needs to enforce industrial laws, and from our perspective, it’s not doing that.

“We’re happy to work with the Commonwealth on this … Melbourne has a great reputation as a multicultural city, which is enhanced by students who come here from all over the world … I want to make sure that we protect that reputation.”

Immigration Department deputy secretary Michael Manthorpe said in a senate hearing last month that foreign students who came forward to assist the Fair Work Ombudsman’s inquiries into the 7-Eleven pay scam would have “no action taken against them”.

Yet Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said reprieves for underpaid 7-Eleven workers would be assessed case by case.

Mr Herbert called for clarity on the issue, ahead of announcing that students would have access to $150,000 of government-sponsored legal services at a foreign student support service called the Study Melbourne Student Centre.

The centre would also lead a campaign to educate students about workplace rights.

The announcement comes after Fairfax Media and Four Corners revealed systemic wage exploitation of thousands of workers across 620 Australian stores.

The former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission commissioner, Professor Allan Fels, who is leading a review of 7-Eleven’s half-pay scam, said 500 students had reported their exploitation to the company.

Of those workers, 100 compensation claimants are being back paid, with amounts up to nearly $100,000.

But the uncertainty around an amnesty was still deterring students from from speaking up, Mr Fels said.

“We’d support an amnesty, if not strong assurances measures from the federal government, by making it clearer that if a student has been underpaid, their visa is not in jeopardy.”

Mr Fels said the company had developed strong confidentiality safeguards. It asked for limited information about a claimant’s identity, and pledged that the information would be kept in-house, he said.

Council of International Students president Nina Khairina said she was aware of “countless” cases across the country where international students were being underpaid, with some as low as $5 an hour.

“There needs to be a better understanding of the concept of rights. For students with different cultural backgrounds, the whole concept of rights in the first place is not well understood,” she said.

International education – Victoria’s largest export – is worth $5.3 billion, with more than 150,000 international students studying in the state.

A further $152,000 of state government money will be funnelled into projects supporting sporting, cultural and educational initiatives for students.

A federal government spokesman did not respond to questions by deadline.

Extracted in full from The Age.

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