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‘A recipe for disaster’: The rules putting Sydney’s international students at risk

However, Stimson worries that cutting international students’ work hours will reduce their ability to afford suitable housing in a city crushed by a rent crisis.

“Students are now in a financial position to maybe afford the increases because they can work longer than 40 hours in a fortnight, but if that goes away and they go down again, does that mean housing becomes unaffordable?”

Proponents also argue that many students will once again be forced to work above the legal limit, potentially exposing them to wage theft – with employers paying below minimum wage, often in cash to escape scrutiny – and becoming afraid to report exploitation because they fear are that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade will revoke their visas. It also exposes them to overcrowded, substandard housing arrangements.

Before the pandemic restricted people from traveling to Australia, a Survey 2019 among 2472 international students found by the Migrant Worker Justice Initiative that four in 10 college students failed to report underpayment, sexual harassment and other problems at work because they feared complaining would affect their visa.

The authors of the subsequent report wrote that removing the 40-hour limit was the best way to address this concern. The survey found that more than three-quarters of international students were paid below the minimum informal hourly wage.

There are 540,300 student visa holders in Australia, with a further 129,300 student visa holders offshore, the Home Office said. Their tuition fees help support Australian universities.

In NSW, universities earn $5.8 billion in tuition fees, and international students contribute $3.1 billion to that total, the NSW Audit Office reports.

Stimson warned: “If the government and universities are to reap the benefits of the revenue generated, I think they need to do a little more to actually protect those students, so (Australia remains) a desirable destination.”

University of Sydney labor relations researcher Stephen Clibborn said the restriction on working hours was necessary to ensure the visa is used for its main purpose: education.

“Certainly, if you work more than 40 hours every two weeks, you run a high risk of failing your studies,” he said. “I’m afraid if you maintain a lifted restriction for a long time, it increases the incentive for temporary migrants and employers to treat this as a work visa in the first place, and education is just the ticket to ride.”


Clibborn said the government had recognized the higher cost of living for international students by raising the limit from 40 hours to 48 hours every fortnight, and said policies should focus on ensuring they get the correct legal wage for every hour they work.

“It is better for students to earn more per hour than they used to, rather than simply working more hours.”

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