Australian employers salute work extension for international students

Employers including 7-Eleven, Woolworths and Bunnings say changes announced by the Australian government on January 19 – allowing study visa holders to temporarily work more than 20 hours – will be beneficial for both employers and the student employees.

“7-Eleven warmly welcomes the government’s announcement relaxing the hours student visa holders can work,” said Angus McKay, CEO and managing director, 7-Eleven Australia.

“The pandemic, particularly in recent months, has created enormous staffing challenges for our franchisees so they are also very happy with the announcement.”

The chain of convenience stores has long been calling for the changes, McKay continued, adding the company has made numerous submissions to various Parliamentary Committees as well as direct representations to ministers over the past few years.

“7-Eleven’s view is that students should be allowed to work as many hours they can manage as long as they are meeting their course requirements.

“Our view is that limiting hours of work to 40 hours a fortnight places undue financial stress on international students and leaves them susceptible to exploitation in the workplace.”

Caryn Katsikogianis, chief people officer of Woolworths Group – which currently has 5,000 team members who hold student visas at its Woolworths stores, BIG W and supply chain operations – welcomed the government announcement on international student working hours.

“Across Australia, thousands of international students are valued members of our store and supply chain teams,” she said.

“We know many of these team members are interested in working additional hours and this change will make a significant difference as we work together across the supply chain to provide food and essentials amid unprecedented disruption.”

The Australasian Convenience and Petroleum Marketers Association has also been advocating for a change in the working hours cap for more than 12 months in the wake of the Covid-19 international border closure, its CEO Mark McKenzie noted.

“The Australian fuel industry utilises international students extensively, with some international students accounting for between 35% and 40% of all employees and around 70% of all shifts worked between 10pm and 6am,” he said.

“Given the significance of this cohort to our national workforce, the visa changes will deliver significant benefits to Australian fuel wholesale and fuel retail businesses in the face of current worker shortages.”

The changes will mean international students already in the country can “be better utilised”, as borders had been closed for over 18 months. There are not enough Australian residents who want to work at a service station, McKenzie posited, meaning that changes will not result in Australian “residents losing jobs to international students”.

“It will greatly assist in managing the current short-term labour shortages in our industry”

“It will greatly assist in managing the current short-term labour shortages in our industry,” he said.

“International students have historically been, and continue to be, an essential and valuable part of our national industry workforce.”

In addition to benefits for industry, students will profit as “20 hours per week often leaves very little to live on after paying rent and food costs in Australia’s bigger cities”.

“A key challenge, however, will be to stamp out wage exploitation of international students. Australian law requires that all workers in all industries, whether they be Australian residents or international students, must be paid the Award Minimum wage for normal hours and all appropriate shift penalties and overtime. This area continues to be a major focus of our association,” concluded McKenzie.

Rana Obeid, head of HR Operations at household hardware chain Bunnings, said its store leaders will work with any team members on a visa to determine how the changes may apply to them and discuss their options relating to rosters.

“We hope this will be welcome news for our small cohort of international student team members,” Obeid explained.

Beyond employers in the country, sector stakeholders have suggested Australia is set to return as top study destination thanks to the move.

CEO at Global Study Partners Elaine Starkey said that Australia is “certainly set to rebound as one of the world’s top study destinations” with the work extension, in addition to the temporary graduate visa extension from two to three years – announced in late 2021.

“Support like this will encourage students to return to Australia to study and work. The skills shortages are increasing and some action needed to be taken by the Australian Government to address this. Its a pity this action wasn’t taken early but better late than never. Australia is set to emerge strongly post Covid,” she told The PIE.

Senior vice president – International at Torrens University Australia Mark Falvo added that the initiatives show “our current and prospective international students how valuable their contribution is to the Australian economy and society as a whole and once again projects Australia to be the open and welcoming country we know it to be”.

“I know that our students at Torrens University who are currently waiting offshore are very much looking forward to being able to realise their dreams to live work and most importantly study in Australia, a dream which has now become closer to reality,” he said.

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