International students are leaving the cleaning industry ‘in droves’ for longer work hours

Saurav has been cleaning Sydney workplaces for two years.

As an international student from Nepal, the job has allowed him to fit work around his study.

But now, after the government announced changes to the number of hours student visa holders can work per week in certain sectors, the 22-year-old, who did not give his surname, is looking for other employment to become more financially secure.

“Many of my friends, they’ve already moved from cleaning to kitchens … because the hours are relaxed there,” he told SBS News.

“They’re getting more money so there’s no point staying [in cleaning].” 

Saurav says it makes sense for him to leave the cleaning industry when he can work longer hours in other sectors

Catalina Florez/SBS News

Before the coronavirus pandemic, international students were only allowed to work 20 hours a week.

But as borders closed and businesses lost workers, the rules were relaxed for some sectors and students were allowed to work further hours in agriculture, food processing, healthcare, and aged and disability care, and child care.

Then in May, the federal government granted concessions to the tourism and hospitality sectors – but the cleaning industry was still left out.

Lisa Macqueen, CEO of commercial cleaning company Cleancorp, said it has already had a major impact on the industry.

“[International students] can only work 20 hours in the cleaning industry but they could work up to 100 hours if they wanted to or more in tourism and hospitality, which is great news for those industries, but it’s devastating for the cleaning industry,” she said.

The industry is one of Australia’s largest employers of international students, who were among the worst impacted financially at the height of the coronavirus pandemic last year, making up at least 30 per cent of the sector’s workforce.

Cleancorp said it has already lost 20 per cent of its staff to other industries and is warning hotels and offices could become more vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks.

“This is the industry that kept Australia safe right through [the pandemic],” she said.

“We’re going to see a really dramatic shortage of people who can perform those cleaning services. If we get another COVID outbreak, it’s really a great concern to a lot of us in the industry.

“Without that extra workforce, the cleaning industry is going to be crippled because we’re seeing droves of people leaving.”

Like workers in healthcare, cleaners have largely been considered frontline staff during the pandemic and critical to the country’s economic recovery.

Anthony Byrne, a community organiser from the United Workers Union, said the cleaning workforce’s importance has been overlooked.

“If you can’t get the cleaners, then people won’t be able to go into work. People won’t be able to access buildings until they have safe clean workplaces,” he said.

“They are an invisible workforce but they are an essential workforce. While we’re at home, they’re cleaning our workplaces.”

Mr Byrne and Ms Macqueen are calling on the government to extend the number of hours that international students can work in jobs in the cleaning industry.

“Cleaning is an essential industry at this time. We need safe, clean workplaces and we need the people to be able to provide this for us,” Mr Byrne said.

Cleaning staff wearing full PPE gear are seen cleaning outside the View Hotel in Melbourne, 18 January 2021.

Cleaning staff wearing full PPE gear are seen cleaning outside the View Hotel in Melbourne, 18 January 2021.


In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said further decisions about waiving work limits to new sectors for student visa holders may be made by the government in the future.

“Australia’s student visa program enables international students to come to Australia with the primary intention to undertake full-time study. Under the conditions of their visa, most international students can work up to 40 hours per fortnight while their course is in session, and unlimited hours during scheduled course breaks,” they said.

“This work condition strikes a balance between the opportunities for students to undertake limited work without affecting their studies, and minimises the impact on local job opportunities.”

Saurav said while he would like to continue cleaning, he needs to look after himself financially.

“My company wants me to do more hours but due to visa restrictions I can’t go beyond 20 hours [a week],” he said.

“If the visa was relaxed it would be best for me … but if not, then I’m compelled to move to another industry.”

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