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Australia relaxes cap on international student work hours in selected industries

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Given acute staff shortages in many Australian industries due to Omicron and associated isolation rules, the government is allowing international students to work more hours in certain critical industries
  • Many will welcome the new temporary rules but some worry that they may overburden international students’ already heavy study demands

Serious labour shortages in Australia due to workers having to isolate because of COVID-19 have prompted the government to temporarily extend the number of hours international students can work in some “critical” industries. Previously, all international students have been permitted to work no more than 40 hours every two weeks.

International students will now be allowed to work for more than 40 hours per fortnight if they are:

  • “Working for an aged care Approved Provider or Commonwealth-funded aged care service provider with a RACS ID or a NAPS ID;
  • Working for a registered National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) provider;
  • Enrolled in a healthcare-related course and are supporting the health effort against COVID-19, as directed by health officials;
  • Working in the agriculture sector;
  • Working in the tourism and hospitality sector;
  • Working in a supermarket, or associated distribution facility, located in an area impacted by COVID-19 lockdown restrictions for the duration of the lockdown.”

International students whose work is not in the above industries will remain limited to 40 hours per fortnight.

Academic progress must be maintained

To be able to work for extended hours, international students working in target industries will be expected to:

  • “Maintain their course enrolment;
  • Ensure satisfactory course attendance;
  • Ensure satisfactory course progress.”

Concerns about balancing work and study

As much as Council of International Students Australia (CISA) president Oscar Zi Shao Ong says many students will welcome the ability to work more, he cautioned that it may be difficult for students to fit both study obligations and extended work hours into their schedules. He also worries that the new rules could send mixed messaging to international students coming to Australia. He told ABC News,

“The biggest question is that international students came here to study. If you’re asking them to be entirely just working as a skilled worker, then the question is should they get a different visa rather than student visa?”

He also has concerns about the wellbeing of students working for longer periods in frontline industries. “Who’s going to be responsible to take care of them, if international students fall sick?”, he said in his interview with ABC News.

COVID continues to hamper economic recovery

As in many countries, COVID is wreaking havoc on supply chains in Australia. Major construction and roadworks projects are stalled, and in some areas, it’s becoming difficult to obtain groceries. The Loadstar, a news publication focused on supply chain dynamics, reported that early in January,

“Local media reported bare supermarket shelves across the country, due to ‘up to half’ of all truck drivers being absent from work, thanks to either a positive test result or isolation rules.”

Bjorn Jarvis, head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics labour statistics unit told The Guardian that staff shortages are particularly acute in lower paying industries. Foreign workers are an important source of labour for such industries, and Australia’s closed borders in 2021 meant that many employers were unable to fill job vacancies.

Now, the Australian government is encouraging international students and skilled workers to return to Australia, at least in part as part of an effort to boost economic recovery. Borders opened to fully vaccinated international student and skilled worker visa holders; humanitarian, working holiday and provisional family visa holders on 15 December 2021.

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