July 15, 2009
Thousands of overseas students are being made to work for nothing ? or even pay to work ? by businesses exploiting loopholes in immigration and education laws in what experts describe as a system of economic slavery.
The vast pool of unpaid labour was created in 2005 when vocational students were required to do 900 hours work experience. There was no requirement that they be paid.
Overseas students remained bound to the system as completion of such courses became a near-guaranteed pathway to permanent residency in Australia.
Since then the number of foreign students enrolled in the sector has leapt from 65,120 to 173,432 last year ? about half of all overseas students.
The changes have created a $15 billion education industry, as comparable countries don't offer residency. But experts, teachers and students say many of the private college courses are little more than visa mills. Since 2001 the number of private colleges has risen from 664 to 4892.
One university-educated overseas student The Age spoke to spent $22,000 and two years doing a hairdressing course she will never use, just to secure her residency. She did her 900 hours' work experience in a salon closely linked to the college, where students are required to pay a $1000 non-refundable bond to use the equipment.
Other colleges charge their students thousands of dollars in "placement fees" only to then advertise their supply of free labour to local business. And a blackmarket has sprung up in fraudulent letters of completion.
"If you wanted to make a corrupt system, this is absolutely how you would do it," Sydney immigration agent Karl Konrad said.
He said the system began to go bad when the requirement for 900 hours' work was introduced.
"You've got the agents and the proprietors realising that there is a flood of free labour, but, of course, the demand for placements outstrips the supply, so even if they wanted to take all that free labour they can't use it all," said Mr Konrad, the former Victorian police officer famed for his whistleblowing exposure of corruption among fellow officers. "It's all about supply and demand."
He said a trade in fraudulent documents had evolved with employers and agents selling students verification they had completed their 900 hours. One agent told The Age he charged $15-20,000 for such paperwork. "They are slaves," he said. "They work for free from 11 o'clock to 11 o'clock, no breaks, no nothing. They have to pay the owner for the paperwork. They want to stay here. They will do anything."
He described the entire industry as a racket. "They work with no workers' compensation, no insurance. If they are injured at work, bad luck."
Mr Konrad said the colleges and employers had a dangerous amount of power over their students, who face deportation if their enrolments are cancelled.
Even the pretence of education has been abandoned at many colleges, say students and teachers who spoke to The Age.
One cooking trainer said if he did not keep passing students, migration agents would stop sending them to the college where he worked and his job would disappear.
"As for this 900 hours' work experience, at least 60 per cent of my students were paying for it. It made a lot of Indian restaurant owners very rich," he said.
"Two years ago a student would shudder if you asked them if they were here for PR (permanent residency). Now it's blatant."
Mr Konrad said many students had taken out loans or mortgages back home to pay the exorbitant fees.
"If you have taken a loan in Indian dollars of $20,000 to study here, that is going to take you nearly 20 years to pay off in India.
"At least if they make it into Australia they can pay that off within a reasonable time frame."