Underpaid international students are missing this point

(Tough advice alert: If you are easily offended, close the tab or browser window and do something else. But if you would like to be challenged and to see things for what they are, then read on.)

There has been quite a bit of talk about international students being underpaid and exploited on the job.

A former international student, by the name of Kenny, said that he worked at a famous Chinese restaurant for $8/hour through the duration of his degree (ABC article).

And according to a survey of more than 1400 students by the University of Sydney’s business school, it found out that 80% of students working in restaurants in Sydney were being exploited, with up to 35% of them earning as low as $12/hour (Sydney Morning Herald article).

I’ve been through that myself and I know how it feels.

I scrubbed rental cars in the summer heat and scrubbed huge curry pots in the closing shift of a Japanese cafe/restaurant after a long day’s class in University. And I was being underpaid.

I know we could go into a lengthy discussion about the systemic issues at hand about fair work and the labour market, but that’s not the point of this article.

From an individual’s perspective, the people and even victims of the exploited and underpaid situation are missing a very, very big point…

It’s only a job.

It’s only a freaking job.

It’s NOT a career.

Know the difference.

Stop making this too big of an issue.

Yes, someone has to say it!

Remember Kenny who worked in a famous Chinese restaurant throughout his degree for $8/hour?

Why is he paid only $8/hour?

It could be because the sweet and sour chicken with rice set only goes for $9 during the lunch period. It’s could be because they sell 12 dumplings for $5, and they are making it extremely cheap or affordable for their target audience.

Hence, they need to cut costs in as many ways as possible. This is business sense. And by paying staff $8/hour, they can hire more staff – I’m just guessing.

So what if we do impose the minimum wage requirement on them?

Then they will have to raise the prices of their food items. Rice sets for lunch now goes for $15, not $9. 12 dumplings go for $12, not $5.

Then they won’t be able to hire that many staff! And Kenny might be out of a job. So what should Kenny do?

If you are Kenny, I know, it is your right to fight for fair wages and for fair working conditions. But there are bigger and unseen forces at work here, and these bigger systemic changes take (lots of) time to come into play.

So here’s what you can do as an individual.

4 questions for the Kenny’s out there:

1. You are stuck in the job? Whose responsibility is it, really?

On one hand, you should fight to be paid and be treated fairly at work.

On the other hand, if nothing really changes, you need to do something about it.

You can sulk, whine, complain till the cows come home. Or you can take full responsibility and ownership of your situation and find other better opportunities for yourself.

Are you really stuck in your situation? Or are you also allowing yourself to remain stuck because you aren’t doing much about it?

If you want something you haven’t had before you have to do things you have never done before.

2. If you aren’t happy with the pay, why aren’t you looking elsewhere for work?

Our friend Kenny has been in the $8/hour job for the duration of his degree. Assuming his degree is over the course of 3 years, what in the world has he been doing? Or what has he not been doing which he should?!!!

If you are not happy with your current situation, you need to do something about it.

When I was unemployed after my graduation, I didn’t blame the university, government, economy, industry, etc, for my joblessness. I sucked it up and did what I had to do to build up my profile, gain work experience and boost my employability.

Honestly I wasn’t happy scrubbing those huge curry pots while being underpaid. So what did I do? I looked for a job elsewhere. Submitted my resumes in person at the cafes. Got a job as a kitchen hand in a reputable cafe along Lygon Street. And got paid well.

Execution trumps excuses.

3. Is this a job or is this your career?

Know the very big difference.

That restaurant, office admin, F&B, retail, part-time/casual role? That’s a job.

The job exists for you to pay the bills, gain some relevant transferable skills (communication, customer service, problem solving, working in a team, working under pressure, etc) and serve to help you work your way towards your career.

And your career is where you truly utilise your skills, qualifications and experience to render value to the community, industry, economy, country and customers. And of course, the rewards of a career are much more sizable and they grow with time, just as you develop and build up your career along the way.

That job that pays you peanuts? You’ll get over it soon because you are meant for bigger and greater things out there.

4. Are you lacking pay or are you actually lacking skills?

Seriously. Are you being paid peanuts because you are worth peanuts?

If you are worth more, prove it, do it and show it!

If you think that you are worth more than the $8/hour job, then go get a $12/hour job.

If you think that you are worth more than the $12/hour job, then go get the $25/hour job.

You get the gist, right?

Image result for jim rohn quotes

See the quote by Jim Rohn – Tony Robbins’ mentor.

Simply put, if you want to earn more, you need to be more valuable in the marketplace and deliver more value to the marketplace. You need to provide bigger solutions to the bigger problems out there. You need to be able to help more people than you do right now.

Thus, you need to invest in your skills and professional development. You need to hone, sharpen and harness your expertise. You need to up your game and stay ahead of the game.

There is absolutely no point is asking for more pay for the same amount of work. That’s pure stupidity. It makes no business or commercial sense.

If I’m a business owner and my employees want more pay for the same amount of output, I could/might do a few things:

  • Advise them that they need to increase their output or results in order to deserve more pay.
  • Advise them that they need to deliver more value in their work and to our business and customers to deserve more pay.
  • Raise their pay, but let some of them go.
  • Let the unhappy ones go so that I can take on those who are more than happy to do the job.
  • Replace them with machines and automation.

Tough truth right?

Here’s one last thing I’ll leave you with.

Be proactive. Take full ownership of your situation. Give it your 150%.

That’s the advice which my dad gave me since a long time ago.

When I did some work as a teenager, I just wanted to do the bare minimum and get by.

Sometimes I got away with it. Sometimes I just knew that the supervisor was unhappy and just kept me because he knew that I would stop working when the school term resumed. Doing the bare minimum was also what got me fired in my first job out of university.

But when I really took my dad’s advice to push myself and go all in with what I do, things changed remarkably.

I was more excited about my work. I saw more opportunities to learn and contribute. I made more meaningful work relationships. I was willing to put in the extra hours to do whatever it takes to get things done – because I loved what I did and that my work was my service to the world out there.

Play a bigger game. Push yourself. Stop worrying about the minimum wage. In fact, screw the minimum wage mentality – that’s just minimal thinking. Think bigger, do bigger. And go leave a bigger dent in the universe.

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1 thought on “Underpaid international students are missing this point

  • Hi Dominic,
    Interesting article and I can appreciate what you are saying about individuals taking responsibility but as an HR professional, I have a different view. Sometimes workers have taken a long time to get a job and are so grateful they won’t complain or kick up a fuss, which allows employers to continue their exploitation of workers and pay under award wages (often the most vulnerable – those on visas, young and whose English language skills might preclude them from other types of employment). How is this fair? Why should we have to accept this, even if it is a job, not a career? For some people, this may be a long-term job. Many employers never get caught and they continue to get richer, at the expense of their workers. Even high profile employers in the hospitality industry are doing it. It is time there was more education on employee rights and responsibilities and we should call these employers out.

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