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Workplace exploitation leaving Latin American students without food, security

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Human rights: Fr Ignacio Gutierrez with Sergio Duran, an international student who was exploited by at least two employers over the past four years. Photo: Emilie Ng

LATIN American students living in Brisbane can’t afford to buy food because Australian employers are underpaying them.

This is just one of the concerns raised by a group of international students from Brisbane’s Latin American Catholic community, who meet weekly at Ashgrove.

Sergio Duran, a Catholic from Colombia who moved to Brisbane four years ago, said he had been exploited by at least two cleaning companies since 2014.

He said his first employer required him to attend two weeks of training without pay before offering him two hours of work per day only to sack him four months later with two days’ notice.

A second company was underpaying Mr Duran and several other employers by at least half their wages.

“For example we spent from 7am to 5, 6, 7pm, and they say you work for example five hours a day, or six hours when you worked 12 hours with them,” he said.

“And they say no because we spent more hours in the house, and the quote and the time they gave to the tenant was less than we spent so it’s not their problem, it’s our problem.”

Mr Duran is unable to prove he was underpaid, as he was never provided with pay slips despite working for the company for two years.

He also has no way of knowing if the company paid the correct percentage for taxes or superannuation.

“I was really scared because I used to pay my school and my rent, but I wanted to quit the job,” Mr Duran said.

Twelve months ago, the 30-year-old was involved in a bicycle accident when a car door opened while he was riding on the road.

The injury from the accident means Mr Duran cannot work and he has also suspended his studies in commercial cookery at Spencer College, Woolloongabba.

Fortunately he was able to make a claim through WorkCover as the accident happened within 30 minutes of finishing work.

But donations from his Catholic community, who Mr Duran calls his family away from home, were the greatest comfort in his time of need.

These donations, which are all offered by members of the Latin American community, include bags of rice, beans, oil and even toilet paper.

“Fortunately when people lose their job or don’t find a job, the Church or the priests give us food – little baskets with food – and we can survive with them for a while,” Mr Duran said.

“This is a really good thing because we need food; we don’t have money, but we have food, it’s something, and then you can spend more time to look for a job.”

Mr Duran thought workers’ rights might be improving for other Latin American students but last week he met a Peruvian student working for his first employer who was still attending training without pay.

Sergio Duran

Sergio Duran: “You came here because it’s a beautiful country, it’s a multicultural country, good politicians, good things and, what, we have to support that kind of people?” Photo: Emilie Ng.

Mr Duran said there were many people in his Latin American Catholic community who had been exploited by Australian employers.

“People are still living like that (exploiting international students) and no one is saying anything,” he said.

“You came here because it’s a beautiful country, it’s a multicultural country, good politicians, good things and, what, we have to support that kind of people?

“We are making them richer, but what about us?”

Mr Duran is speaking out about being exploited by Australian employers so other international students can avoid the pain he went through.

On August 13 the 30-year-old joined a group of workers’ rights advocates and members of the Latin American Catholic community in Brisbane to ask local politicians to put an end to abusive working conditions.

The community met at St Finbarr’s Church, Ashgrove, and raised the need to implement laws that stopped industries from luring students with false employment advertising, change visa restrictions and offer transport concessions for international students.

Scalabrinian Father Ignacio Gutierrez, a chaplain to the Latin American community in Brisbane, said he was shocked when he heard his members share about being exploited by their employers.

“In the beginning I was surprised because we are in a first world country,” Fr Gutierrez said.

“I never expected that it would happen as they are sharing.

“I was very disappointed of course; you feel that pain when they are sharing and sometimes you see them crying.”

Fr Gutierrez said apart from offering spiritual direction to international students, he also wanted to support their human rights.

“Precisely we want to bring this awareness, awareness of what is happening here in this country and especially to wake people up, particularly those who have potential capacities to do something,” he said.

“This is why we want to involve, if it is possible, politicians, so they can bring these issues and discuss about improving the laws to protect these international students.”

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