New Zealand's overseas students are launching a campaign against employers who are paying them below-minimum wages.

Victoria University law students Lukas Kristen, from Germany, and Vaelyn Luo, from Singapore, say some employers are exploiting overseas students - and then threatening to get them deported by disclosing that they have been working illegally.

"A lot of our friends have problems, especially those who don't know their legal rights," said Kristen, president of the NZ International Students Association (NZISA).

"An employer says, 'You can be a dishwasher for $10 an hour.' They think that's good because where they come from they don't get paid nearly as much, but it still breaks the law.


"We have situations where employers are not telling students what they are doing is illegal, and we've had instances where employers then threatened to go to the authorities to report that the student was working overtime, so students are pushed into a vicious circle where they're afraid to speak out."

Most of New Zealand's 106,000 international students are on student visas allowing them to work a maximum of 20 hours a week.

But Luo, NZISA's equity vice-president, said many worked long hours "under the table", not realising that it was against the law.

"We can't work on a freelance basis on a student visa, but many students, because they pay so much fees in New Zealand and are in financial difficulty, are trying to take up jobs and doing things that are not allowed."


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Kristen said the association knew of students being exploited in Auckland, Wellington, Otago and Waikato.

"We've had issues in Waikato where international students get paid $10 an hour, they get forced into 12-hour work shifts, that is in the agriculture sector," he said.


"In Wellington we have worked with a few students, writing to the employer to let them know, and if that doesn't produce any results we are helping the students to contact the labour inspectors.

"But even myself as a law student don't know how to go about that process, so it's really hard for an international student whose second language is English."

The association plans to hold its first conference in Wellington on September 8.