By Carol Que for the Support Network for International Students (SNIS)
We’ve all seen the many news articles and research reports on international students in Australia—they repeat what many already know. International students are multi-racial migrants made indecipherable by the government and mainstream media: they are neutralised as customers, antagonised as spies, exploited as ‘cash cows’ and cheap labour, as well as being victims of street violence and erased due to neglect during the Covid-19 lockdowns.
But there is something more disquieting going on. Even before the pandemic, many international students experienced systemic entrapment and captivity. While their struggles are different depending on their racial and class backgrounds, all are linked to border control regimes, imperial industry, foreign diplomacy, state military and aid initiatives.
The Australian education industry is complicit in this systemic, yet simultaneously intimate violence, wrought by labour exploitation and the precarious status created by immigration policy. Education providers, private-for-profit colleges and universities have contributed to creating a process of entrapment, while displacing their accountability by creating discourse on the ‘declining quality of education’.
The Australian education system has been plagued with fraudulent providers since the privatisation of the vocational education and training (VET) sector. In August of last year, former students at the Lawson College in Dandenong went public with allegations of inadequate facilities and supports, exorbitant fees, and bullying and threats of deportation following complaints.
Due to high unemployment rates in the Philippines, the local education system has become export-oriented, and the government’s Labour Export Policy actively campaigns for Filipinos to get out of their country. One student reported to Migrante Melbourne:
I was convinced when they said direct pathway to permanent residency in Australia. There was no ‘show money’ and IELTS needed and I could work in Australia to support my studies. I found out that the course was not aligned with the Skilled Occupation List so it was not going to give me enough points for future migration. I felt deceived.
The effects of these abuses are compounded by the pandemic, with international students facing organised abandonment and locked out from public resources, with many unable to afford food and experiencing homelessness. The majority of students SNIS is in contact with have lost their jobs during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Some had found work at regional farms where they work on a stay-in basis and are paid below the minimum wage. Others work on a cash-in-hand basis. One woman was threatened with deportation by her employer, and another had to undergo hand surgery due to an accident at work, but could not file for a workcover claim. We also encountered many international students who are experiencing domestic and/or family violence, and who are resigned to stay in these abusive situations due to being dependent on their partner’s student visas and having no community or government support should they decide to leave.
Today, international students form a sizeable part of Australia’s temporary migrant/flexible labour market, working within lucrative industries such as agriculture, construction, hospitality, and manufacturing. As Sanmati Verma has documented, when employment conditions are punishing, visas expire, and there is a dearth of information and language accessibility to people knowing their working rights, this sets up whole communities who are considered permanently provisional or overtly ‘illegal’. In order to survive, students are pushed to seek out work through the informal labour market, taking up contemporary contract forms of indentured and undocumented work. As they become part of trades producing cheap and unprotected labour, they find themselves at further risk of entrapment, captivity, police violence, criminalisation and incarceration.
This process, which at multiple junctures seeks to exploit Filipinos and other international students who want to get out of poverty, is called education trafficking. The phrase was coined in 2016 by Filipino organisers at Migrante Aotearoa to describe ‘the exploitation of international tertiary students for the profit of immigration agents, private education providers, and employers’ through three main elements: deception of students in their home countries, debt bondage, and workplace exploitation. Education trafficking as experienced by Filipinos descends from unfree labour practices of colonial slavery and indentureship perpetrated by white Australia and continues today with the collusion of the fascist Duterte regime.
It is important to make a distinction between previous forms of slavery and indentureship to not conflate its realities and ongoing consequences for Black Indigenous peoples, who continue to be at the frontier of struggling against extraction of their lands and dispossession here. There is a chequered history of recognition of the imperial violences wrought upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, South Sea Islander as well as Papuan and New Guinean domestic workers across nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indigenous and migrant labour have played an important role in establishing and developing First World settler colonies, and Australia is no exception.
Slavery is defined by Port Jackson South Sea Islanders as ‘legal status that lasted for life and was inherited by slaves’ children. Slaves were the property of their owners, and could be sold, bequeathed, gifted, mortgaged or hired out like any other chattel. Slaves could not enter into any contract, own property or give evidence in court.’ White beneficiaries of slave labour also helped finance the colonisation of Australia, where the British programme involved the transportation of 3.4 million people from the African continent on British ships—and this doesn’t include people born to slavery in the ‘New World’.
On the other hand, indentureship occurs in slave-like conditions, as indentured labour, debt bondage, and domestic servitude. Indentureship is characterised as involving an aspect of –‘free choice’ on the part of people attempting to better their lives, although there are also many who are simply coerced or deceived. In Australia there has been legislation responses to ‘modern slavery’ that forcefully echoes elements of the indentured labour trade. These include the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Slavery, Slavery-like Conditions and People Trafficking) Act 2013, as well as the Modern Slavery Act 2018.
This article emerges primarily from the experiences of Filipino and other Asian communities based in Australia. Many of these international students are neither free nor enslaved, but their exploitation is constituted on the fixed ground of Black unfreedom and stolen lands. These are the real-life consequences faced when people’s worth is associated with their use value and ability to produce wealth for nation states. When the Third World is still ravaged by western imperialism and neocolonial powers, education trafficking is one part of the violent process that fosters hyper-exploitable, deportable, or disposable classes of migrants.
International students are not only a politicised migrant identity under racial capitalism in Australia: they are also part of the international working class, and are getting organised. They survive their arduous daily conditions, set up their own forms of advocacy and mutual aid, refusing and resisting in many yet untold ways. After months of collective advocacy and coordination, Filipino students have initiated their own organisation called United Filipino International Students, which launched in August.
As an organisation committed to advocacy and political education on this issue, SNIS insists on the necessity to organise to prevent international student exploitation as part of international working-class struggle, but also tapping shared experiences between multi-racial communities to build intra-communal strength and solidarity.
Our objectives are:
- To build solidarity through broadening and consolidating existing grassroots welfare and support systems for the critical material and relational needs of international students who we come into contact with;
- To develop partnerships with different groups and organisations at local, state, territory, and federal levels to advance the rights and welfare of international students;
- To generate a better understanding of the lived experiences of international students and other migrants in Australia through information sharing amongst its members, as well as encourage balanced and accurate media coverage of international student issues;
- To advance appropriate policies that will secure the rights and assure the social situation of international students. This includes ensuring access to healthcare (including mental health and counselling), safe housing (including emergency accommodation), legal and immigration safety nets, ongoing welfare support (e.g., financial hardship payments and other economic packages);
- To engage in advocacy and develop campaigns responding to issues confronting international students, centring their voices and alerting the wider public to take collective action; and
- To call for investigation into dodgy education providers and other institutions involved.
We encourage more voices from international students, migrant communities and other organisations to join us in building a movement to abolish education trafficking, as it must be cut from its roots.