Welcome to Melbourne: International Students and Precarious Work in Cafes, Restaurants and Takeaway Food Services (17130)
International students, whether enrolled in higher education, vocational education and training (VET) or English-language intensive courses, form a major part of the temporary migrant workforce in Australia. These students are often treated as part of a future, highly skilled workforce, but the immediate impact of their presence is on lower-skilled, low-wage labour markets in urban centres. This paper reports on preliminary results from a study of international students who supplement their studies with part-time employment as kitchenhands and waiting staff in cafes, restaurants and takeaway food services (ANZSIC 451) in inner-city Melbourne. We assess the quality of the jobs and find that most are highly precarious, characterised by dramatic underpayments, high employment insecurity, poor shift rosters and authoritarian management. Drawing on a small program of interviews, we focus on the issue of individual labour agency. We explore the decision to work in Australia and the reasons for taking the specific job in hospitality. In particular, we are interested in why there is such widespread acceptance of poor wages and conditions. The argument stretches beyond the notion that international students are dependent and display markers of individual vulnerability such as poor English-language skills, lack of knowledge of labour regulation and lack of personal confidence. Instead we suggest that the students have a surprisingly good knowledge of local labour markets, including minimum pay rates and the likelihood of obtaining this pay rate, but they tolerate limited job prospects because they are not so dependent on traditional rewards such as income. Important here is the extent to which international students are exposed to financial pressures. Our interviews suggest that, for most international students, the part-time job is not their only source of income nor their only source of skills development and is instead seen as strictly short-term – just a small pause on what is expected to be a steady progress towards permanent residency status (PR) and a more secure professional or managerial job in Australia. This sustains precarious work and helps to restructure low-wage labour markets. At the same time, our argument draws attention to the broader context of labour agency, anchored in long-term individual and family strategies as well new trajectories of spatial mobility.