Joseph’s whine about work over breakfast was met with a disturbingly similar story from his friend Areeya. Joseph explores the vulnerabilities, ethical challenges and worker’s rights he and his friend found themselves navigating as students working overseas.
Recently I’d been on the bad end of a deal with a magazine in Bangkok. Several weeks, several stories and not a single Thai baht made it to my bank account. When my friend Areeya asked about it and I began to unload or vent as we call it, my plea for sympathy was met with a rather unexpected response: Her eyes began to widen, her teeth began to show and as a smile began to form she blurted out, “Err. Just like me in Brisbane”.
“Err,” can mean a lot of things, but one of them is the Thai way to acknowledge something rather unflattering. What I’d said to spur the ‘err’ was that when overseas, we often place trust in other ex-pats, especially those from our home countries. I had done so in Bangkok when an American manager told me he would pay for my contribution to a magazine. Areeya, a Thai national, had done the same when she took a hospitality job at a popular Thai restaurant in Brisbane. We’d been given false promises and, to the surprise of both of us, our employers would later have us believe there was some kind of misunderstanding—a practice commonly known as gaslighting.
Filled with the same youthful wisdom most recent graduates employ, I never imagined a magazine manager would lie to my face, let alone use my visa status to his advantage. Having spent the past three years at university learning what it meant to be a journalist, ethics classes taught me to consider the outcomes of my decisions and the power of the pen. My media law classes introduced me to defamation and contempt of court. But it was in neither I would learn my first ethical battle in the journalism field would be something entirely different.
To “take what you can get” is typical advice given to journalism graduates. Yet, that’s the exact attitude which allowed both Areeya and I to be blindsided by our employers.
Funnily enough, I took journalism because I wanted to write about people who exploited those new to a country with visa limitations. Similarly, Areeya took the job with her Thai employer to feel closer to home while living abroad.
Instead, I found myself on the receiving end of exactly what I’d hoped to write about, while Areeya was denied any of the benefits of working in Australia that she’d been so excited about. Unfortunately, my experience isn’t limited to Areeya or me—it is one all too familiar for many international students in Australia.
International students are an easy target for exploitation. It’s an issue so large the Fair Work Ombudsman sent an open letter to 500,000 international students across Australia in 2017, urging them to check their paycheques after it found almost half of court cases related to wage theft involved international visa holders. It’s also an issue that may have spurred on the recent drafting of a bill to criminalise wage theft.
On the hunt for a visa and in the search for work, we’re often left at the mercy of others. This is when our time and efforts are overlooked, misrepresented and in my case even likened to football—“I’m the coach and this internship is a tryout for you to get on the team and get full-time work,” one manager said.
And, to be paid sub-par wages in cash doesn’t work out better than paying tax as Areeya was told by a fellow countryman, happy to deny her the rights of the country she just arrived in before she had the chance to enjoy them.
I guess I missed the day in ethics or media law when they tell you before making your own ethical decisions to consider whether your employer is willing to do the same. ‘Take what you can get’ might not be the best advice after all—or maybe that’s just the curse of being young and hungry for a start.
Names have been changed for privacy.