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Navigating Workplace Abuse in Australia: A Guide for International Students

As an international student in Australia, you might find yourself part of the bustling retail or fast-food sector – a popular choice for flexible employment. But, as the festive season approaches, it’s important to be aware of the unique challenges you might face, especially in light of recent industry concerns.

A recent survey by the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) paints a concerning picture: 76 per cent of workers faced regular verbal abuse, and 12.5 per cent encountered physical violence, a significant rise from previous years. 

In light of these findings, we offer practical guidance to help you navigate workplace abuse, should you face such situations.

Your rights as an employee

Australia prides itself on fair work practices, upheld by the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO). But what about protection from customers, particularly in a retail setting?

To tackle the increasing abuse faced by retail workers, a significant step has been taken with the establishment of a retail employee safety council. This council, which includes the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), the Australian Retailers Association (ARA), and other influential stakeholders, represents a major development in enhancing worker protection. This initiative aims to strengthen laws and provide better training and support for employees.

Recognising and responding to abuse

Abuse in the workplace can be verbal or physical. Recognising early signs and knowing how to respond is key. The first step is to identify early signs of potential conflict, such as escalated tone of voice or aggressive body language from customers. In such situations, remaining calm and using non-confrontational language are key to de-escalation. Keeping a safe physical distance and avoiding physical confrontation is also crucial. 

The safety council plans to offer high-quality training in handling such situations to all levels of retail staff, as well as physical safety measures like the installation of security screens at checkout counters. 

What support systems are available to you?

Navigating workplace challenges can often be overwhelming, particularly for international students adapting to new environments. If you encounter workplace abuse, the first step is to report the incident to your supervisor or manager. They are typically responsible for making official reports and may direct you to human resources (HR) or counselling services, especially in larger companies or retail chains. The safety council has also announced plans to develop training and support specifically to help staff address trauma resulting from workplace abuse.

Beyond your workplace, many educational institutions offer counselling services designed to help manage workplace stress. These services can also provide guidance on understanding your rights within the Australian work context. For issues that may require legal intervention, community legal centres or legal aid organisations are valuable resources.

In the unfortunate event of racial abuse, it’s crucial to know that you have the option to seek further assistance from the Australian Human Rights Commission. The Commission provides support and pathways for addressing serious concerns like discrimination and harassment, ensuring your rights are upheld and respected.

Read more: Where to Find Support Services For International Students in Australia

Want to get more involved in preventing workplace abuse?

As an international student working in Australia, you have the opportunity to actively contribute to creating safer work environments. This can be achieved by engaging with established unions and retail associations that advocate for worker safety.

You can undertake training through the SDA, which advocates for better conditions and campaigns for safer workplaces, fair pay, and improved treatment. You can also join ARA programs that include workshops and awareness campaigns to empower workers on safety and rights.