‘You need to be resilient’: Work cap reintroduction puts strain on international students

  • International student numbers continue to rise indicating the sector is slowly recovering.
  • A return of a cap on working hours for students has impacted Gabriela* who lost a full-time administration job as a result.
  • She warns other students they will need to be ‘resilient’ in order to navigate Australia’s labour market.
Gabriela* is warning international students to expect to be “resilient” in order to navigate “all of the obstacles that are currently facing (them in) Australia.”
She said while promotional materials continue to show the country as beautiful with its unique flora and fauna and places to visit, “what is not talked about is the job opportunities here”.
As of July 1, the number of hours international students in Australia could work was limited to 48 hours per fortnight. Since then, Gabriela*, an industrial designer, said she had only been able to find employment in the hospitality sector.

Gabriela* claims the restrictions curtail her ability to work full-time in more meaningful jobs and instead force her to cobble together casual shifts in more menial positions in hospitality and cleaning.

Student arrivals up by 10 per cent

According to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the number of new international students to Australia continues to increase.
In June of this year alone, the number of student arrivals was 10 per cent higher than the numbers recorded in June 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced border closures.

In June 2023, 50,620 international students arrived in Australia, an increase of 21,150 students, compared to June 2022.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he is prioritising the return of skilled migrants and international students to Australian shores ahead of foreign tourists.

The international student sector in Australia is slowly recovering post-COVID. Source: Getty / Getty Images/urbazon

Executive director of Universities Australia, Catriona Jackson, stated a few weeks ago that, “Australia continues to benefit culturally, socially and economically from the arrival of new and already settled students”.

The increase in international student arrivals to Australia is an encouraging sign for the international education industry, which was worth $40 billion to the economy before the pandemic, and is now gradually recovering.
But, according to Gabriela*, life in Australia is increasingly difficult and she claims the country does not value the experience and skills that many international students bring with them.
Gabriela* visited Australia for the first time in 2013. On that occasion, she stayed in the country for two years to learn English and study a master’s degree.
But she said she was unable to find a job in her professional area and ended up working in the cleaning and hospitality sectors.

A ‘familiar story’

Gabriela*’s story resonates with many others in the international student community as they struggle with the rising cost of living and restrictive work hours in Australia.
Abigail Ildefonso, a Filipino international student, said the re-introduction of a cap on the number of hours international students could work was “unfair” and led to financial hardship.
“Aside from school fees, I’m paying for our (private health insurance) which is roughly $20,000 since I have a son and a husband,” Ms Ildefonso told SBS Filipino.
“Since I arrived in 2019, our weekly grocery [bill] has increased by $100 as prices are going up,” she said.
One group working for the welfare of international students, the Support Network for International Students (SNIS), is challenging the re-imposition of limited working hours through the ‘Scrap the Cap’ campaign.
SNIS was established in September 2020 as a collaborative effort between numerous organisations and individuals, including international students and their supporters. Its primary goal is to promote the well-being and rights of international students through a range of initiatives and strategies.
According to its coordinator, Ness Gavanzo, the group aims to acknowledge the significant economic contribution of international students in Australia and to eliminate restrictions on their working hours.
“During the pandemic, international students were mostly the ones working the essential jobs and services because citizens and permanent residents could receive Job Keeper allowance or ask for financial support from Centrelink, but these students were not eligible,” Ms Gavanzo says.

“This is when these international students proved that they could balance working more than 40 hours while maintaining their studies”.

Returning with the same enthusiasm

Gabriela* returned to Australia on an international student visa in 2023 after studying in the country 10 years earlier.
She arrived during the relaxation of work restrictions for international students which meant she could work full-time.

This allowed Gabriela* to find a job in administration and even though it wasn’t a job in her professional field, she could practise her English and develop other skills, she said.

Cleaners are getting uderpaid

Gabriela* says that cleaning and hospitality work are often the only work options available to international students.

However, almost three months after her arrival, work hours restrictions for international students were re-introduced and Gabriela* lost her job.

“A week before the end of June, my boss told me that after 1 July, I was not going to continue with them … Because they needed the person to work full-time and I could only work part-time because of restrictions. So as a result the company couldn´t retain me,” Gabriela* explained to SBS Spanish.

It has been almost two months since work restrictions for international students were re-introduced. They can now work only 48 hours every fortnight. Since the return of the restrictions, Gabriela* says she has only been able to get jobs in the hospitality sector.

‘Everything is fine until you mention your visa’

She claims she has searched through “tons (of jobs)”.
“It all goes very well in the interviews, most of them like my profile, they like my attitude to work and desire to learn. But when we get to talking about the subject of (my) visa, there is a change,” she said.

For all these reasons, she advises anyone thinking of travelling to Australia on a student visa to come prepared, “with a lot of resilience to face all the obstacles that are currently in their paths in Australia”.

Australian visa

Gabriela* claims many bosses change their attitudes when they discover an interviewee is in Australia on a student visa. Source: SBS

Gabriela* said she regrets that her professional experience and skills were not valued in Australia. “I feel like a lot of professional talent is being wasted here,” she said.

“I think it’s very important to talk about what’s happening right now in Australia, so that people who want to come, know that the situation is not as rosy as the agencies it out to be, so that they come prepared.”

What happens in other countries?

Australia is not alone in imposing restrictions on the number of hours international students can work.
In the United States, are prohibited from working off-campus for the first year of study and after that, can only work in course-related areas. Students may be granted permission to work off-campus but only in cases of severe financial hardship.
In the United Kingdom, student immigration permission comes with the ability to work up to 20 hours a week during term time, while in Germany, students from outside the European Union (EU) can work 120 full days or 240 half days per year.
In New Zealand, student visa holders can work part-time for up to 20 hours per week and full-time during holidays. In France, international students can work up to 964 hours per year.
Gabriela* said she hadn’t considered moving to another country for better work opportunities.
“I want to stay in Australia basically because of the weather. I am allergic and asthmatic. Cold weather affects me (badly),” she said.

“Canada and Europe have very cold winters and as for the United States, it seems to me that there is a lot of xenophobia there.”

*Real name not used for privacy reasons.

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