Australia’s workforce is under attack, particularly in the lower-paid segments such as Cleaning, Security, Hospitality and Uber. I have long argued that the attack is coming from the unprecedented numbers of overseas students entering the country and given work visas. I have seen the adverse impact this has had on small business and I see no relief in sight unless there are some major changes to our overseas student scheme.

In this article I will try to outline the issues here and explain how they relate in real terms to our small business community and its viability across Australia.

Overseas Workers masquerading as students

As reported in “The Australian” the coalition has recognised the issue of Australia’s migrant intake numbers.
As complaints spiked last year about congestion and pressure on services in big cities, Scott Morrison declared voters were saying “enough, enough, enough — the roads are clogged, the buses and trains are full. The schools are taking no more enrolments”. In March, the Prime Minister announced a quiet, indirect immigration cut and imposed a ceiling of 160,000 arrivals, scrapping the former Labor government’s target of 190,000.”

However, in a recent article in “The Australian” Dr Bob Birrell who heads the Australian Population Research Institute, citing his recent report concluded that

“Pushing the formal program “up or down a bit” is not a significant issue because overseas students are a “far more important contributor to Australia’s population growth”.

So, to put these numbers into perspective, overseas students accounted for 104,987 of the 236,700 or 44% of the intake recorded for net overseas migration in the 2018 financial year. Each of these overseas students hold a visa giving them a right to work, albeit for a maximum of 20 hours per week (during term time) but in truth this limitation is rarely overseen or policed by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  Dr Birrell went on to claim,

“The main attraction to subcontinent students appears to be the access they gain to the Australian labour market, and to the possibility of obtaining a permanent resident visa,”

To provide another perspective on the numbers of overseas students arriving in Australia here’s an extract from Judith Sloan’s recent article in “The Australian” entitled – The value of international students remains debatable

“For over a decade, the granting of an international student visa has carried automatic work rights — 20 hours a week during semester time and unlimited at other times. A very high proportion of international students avail themselves of this right, particularly those from India.

We also know from the work of the Fair Work Ombudsman that there are many cases of underpayment of low-skill workers. Often these workers are on student visas and the maltreatment is perpetrated by businesses whose owners were also born overseas.”

How does this play out in the world of Australian small business community?

Assuming the truth is being spoken here, the impact on other business operators who are paying the correct wages, complying with all the obligations on them in terms of penalty rates, overtime payments etc., makes it virtually impossible to compete. It flies in the face of our sense of ‘fair go’ and the ability for businesses to operate on a level playing field.

Legitimately operating and compliant businesses are being shut out of contracts, missing out on tenders and sometimes even losing their own businesses. It is the unscrupulous operators to whom Judith Sloane refers to, with their seemingly endless supply of vulnerable overseas students that ensures the playing field is most definitely not level and make a mockery of our employment laws.


I agree with the general thrust of Dr Birrell’s arguments, that fiddling around the edges is not going to solve the problem. It is good finally to see this issue getting some attention from the current government, their Department of Home affairs and both the higher education and migration agent lobbyists, but the fact remains that whilst they all ‘fiddle’ small business is being burned.

A condition of a Visa application process for overseas students currently is that the student must be able to demonstrate, not only that they can afford the education fees but that they can support themselves financially and take care of their health whilst they are in Australia studying. So why are they being allowed to work? Why aren’t they being made to meet the visa requirements?

Small Business operators need relief from this attack now. What is needed is a complete ban on overseas students working

This will go some way to rectify the over-supply of labour, and normalise wages, ensure all new entrants into those industries, as well as those already in the industry are paid correctly.

This change will assist in leveling the playing field for small businesses trying to compete with businesses who have access to ‘cheap labour’ and have no compunction in exploiting it.