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Issue #1428      16 September 2009

“It’s total exploitation” – the Indian student experience in Australia

There are currently over 90,000 Indians studying in Australia. Around 28,000 of those are enrolled in the country’s universities studying a wide range of subjects. A small minority are exchange students; most are full fee-paying international students spending about four times what local students do for their courses. They cannot access any pay-later scheme like the HECS-HELP one available for Commonwealth supported places for Australians. They have no recourse to Centrelink benefits for emergencies. Their plight in Australia has given rise to a series of media exposés about racially motivated attacks that, in turn, revealed concerns about their overall welfare in Australia. Stories about fly-by-night “colleges”, courses of doubtful value and worthless diplomas started to filter out.

An actual photo from a website used to entice overseas students to Australia. The site also offers extensive information on how your studies in Australia will "Get points for your immigration" and how that college offers the "...best course options for international students wanting to obtain part-time work and ultimately permanent residency in Australia."

 

 

The state and federal governments switched to damage control mode. Providing education to overseas students is our third largest export industry just behind iron ore and coal. It is worth around $15 billion per annum to the Australian economy. Reports had made their way into the Indian media, as well. Questions were being asked about how safe it is to live and work in Australia. Representatives of the education department and finally the Education Minister, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard herself, toured India in an attempt to allay growing fears for the well-being of Indian students in Australia.

Recently The Guardian had the opportunity to speak to a young Indian woman caught up in the difficulties being experienced by international students. Lakshmi (not her real name) arrived in Australia recently to work and support her husband as he started out on a post-graduate course at an Australian university. Her experience and that of her husband reinforce growing evidence that the students are being exploited cynically on both sides of the Indian Ocean by interests feeding on the migration trade, the education “industry” and those keen to keep wages low in Australia, particularly in the informal sector of the labour market. The first to take their slice of the pie are the agents for Australian courses working from offices throughout India.

“We are from middle class families, we are not from aristocratic families, so we decided we should go and earn for our studies and our own expenses. We will work and earn for ourselves. When I asked my agent that I have two qualifications – a masters of English and another professional degree – so I want to get some sort of job over there, he said ‘Yeah, yeah, you will get a very good job over there, there’s good scope for professionals in your field over there. You should go with your husband.’ But when I came over here it’s totally desperate. No job.

“The agent told us my husband will get a job very easily over there but he never mentioned what sort of job. His fees are $8,000 per semester, $32,000 in all. On top of that there is expenditure for accommodation as well as all the other expenses. We knew my husband would only be able to work 20 hours per week but I would be allowed to work full time, therefore it should be easy to afford my husband’s fees and meet our other expenses, living expenses, for accommodation, groceries.”

The reality for Indian students bears no relationship to the hype emanating from the agents’ offices. Accommodation is the first big hurdle. Recession or no recession, rents are high in Australia’s big cities. Shared accommodation, a room in a relative’s home or short-term arrangements for a bed at a friend’s house, are the norm. Work is the other pressing need. Money brought from home quickly runs out if some sort of income doesn’t materialise. The next big shock is that the jobs the agents talked about are almost always in cleaning, taxi driving, kitchen hand work, abattoirs, aged care or piece work in agriculture. Lakshmi and her husband got some work pruning vines and then a stint of office cleaning. The jobs are turned up through word-of-mouth and nearly always have something “irregular” about them.

“We never ask questions – we would lose our jobs”

“One of his friends came to him; he was a subcontractor in a company and asked him if he wanted to do some work cleaning for him. My husband is very ready for that because he has to pay for his rent. He is left with no money. The subcontractor said, ‘I’m going to give you very good money, $15 per hour and $12 per hour. It’s up to you if you want to do that.’ He said, ‘Yeah I want to do that.’ He gave him some job for two hours in the evening in a shopping mall. Sometimes he took my husband with him to go somewhere else for cleaning. He gave some training to my husband.

“I find it is total exploitation for the students because he never gave any money to us on our TFN number (tax file number); just cash in hand. There’s no proper date for any pay. No fixed day for payment. We would have to ask him when we needed money and he would say, ‘OK, you can use this $100 or $150. I will give you some money on you TFN in a month’s time when I get time.’ That’s it. We are in need for the job. We never ask any questions of him because if we do we would definitely lose our job. The threat was there that if we ask any type of question of him we would have to leave that job. There was no union presence on these jobs.”

The subcontractor lost the cleaning contract that was keeping Lakshmi and her husband afloat. “What happened to us was that one day our boss told us that there is no job for you; no need to turn up at work. My contract has been cancelled by the company. We became homeless that day,” she recalls. She decided to go interstate alone to get assistance from a relative and follow rumours of better job prospects.

“When I got into the city at my first accommodation, the unit, suddenly the girl said to me, ‘I’m your support; just pay me $150 for your bond right now and $70 for your rent.’ I was so surprised and she said, ‘Yeah you have to share one room with me.’ In one room we had three girls; there’s no separate room in which he have to live. They are Indian girls, that unit was occupied by all Indian students and in that one unit lived nine people. There are two bedrooms, one dining room and one kitchen.

“No student has permanent residence or any job. No, we are all looking for a job. One girl is doing a cookery course and she goes out to an Indian restaurant for eight hours a week. She is a waitress and dishwasher. That’s it. The girl with whom I’m living, she has no job. She’s doing community welfare. The two boys, one boy drives a taxi (he’s going back to India to do his International English Language Test course to get PR (Permanent Residency) over here. We all are jobless. There is exploitation in the rent. I think the unit would only be rentable for $390 per week and she’s getting $70 each from us and $150 each for the bond. It’s total exploitation of the students.”

The feeling of vulnerability lingered as she combed the streets for work. She had one slight advantage over many other women; she was not locked into a “contract marriage”.

“Contract marriage is arranged thus: if the girl qualifies with the International English Language Test and she wants to come to Australia with a student visa, the agent will suggest to her, ‘Do you want a partner over there to pay your fees? I will provide a male student to go with you. He will work for you and he will pay your fees over there.’ So it’s a contact marriage, there’s no relationship between you and him. You can live separately. It’s a marriage of convenience but for one year he has to pay your fees and you will provide him PR in Australia.

“The agent will also get some commission from the boy and some from the girl as well; some lakhs (hundreds of thousands) of rupees and maybe two lakhs from him (approximately $4,700). Most of the girls in that other state of Australia come over on this contracted basis. This is the basic point for exploitation of the girls there, maybe in other cities also, I don’t know. When I met some of the girls I was so surprised to see people ask girls ‘Oh, you’re on a student visa?’ ‘No’ ‘Which visa did you come over on?’ ‘I’m on contract marriage.’

Twenty to a house

One restaurant owner had a job offer but with unsavoury strings attached. Lakshmi learns from other women that this, too, is not uncommon. She leaves the city to take up a job picking lettuces in a regional centre about half an hour from the capital.

“I went there at night and entered the room I was given. Oh my God! Too many people! Fifteen to 20 people living under the one roof. When I met the boss he said to me, ‘You can share this room with the ten other girls but you have to pay the rent of $65 right now.’ My friends said to me that I only had to pay $20 because it was a share house with another 15 or 20 people. OK, so I gave him $65 to stay there and he said tomorrow it’s work.

“There are so many couples, so many people there that I met on that first night, who had come to find some work. We have to fill boxes with lettuce; 25 bunches in each for $3.50 per box. We had to pay $6 each for transportation to the field in the boss’ personal car. He got $6 from me for transportation daily. It’s total exploitation. One of my friends tells me he gets $8 per box or $9 per box for the packing so half of the money goes into his pocket.

“There are so many girls working over there. They are all on contract marriage. Their husbands are studying and they have to pay for their fees to get PR over here so they need the work. They have to work in the fields and it’s not a good or safe atmosphere for the girls. It is a very bad atmosphere living with 15 or 20 people, men and women living together; three bedrooms, one kitchen and a dining room. I managed to pick five boxes a day. In five hours I earned $20; then $6 for transportation. If I earn in a week $70 or $80, $65 goes directly to my boss for rent. And you know the house only cost him $150 or $200 per week. You can work it out that he earns a lot of money from the people, all these students.”

The students are permitted one shower per week so that complaints of excessive water use don’t get back to the owner of the house. There are constant fights during the two hour wait to use the single electric range in the kitchen. Two couples share a leaky metal garage in the yard. One of the women there is seven months pregnant. She works in the fields, too. Lakshmi leaves after three tense days. The boss shrugs off a threat from her to inform the authorities about what was going on. “No police will come here,” he said confidently.

“The men are depressed, frustrated”

Back with her husband the money problems have not gone away. He is working bits and pieces of jobs involving late nights and early morning starts. His assignments account for the rest of his waking hours. Friends tell her that many Indians are finding work in aged care but that the course last three months – another three months without pay. The course costs $1,900, payable in four instalments and there are no guarantees.

“One of my friends’ husbands has done this course but still didn’t get a job. He is now suffering depression. Most of the men are depressed; they are frustrated. Every time this man asked his institute, ‘Could you please give me my certificate, I have completed the course in the three months,’ they would say, ‘You didn’t do well in your placement. You have to do another placement for another week.’ It’s very desperate for him. How can he pay his rent? He has his family, too, a wife and son. How can he pay for that if he doesn’t get any job after doing the age care course? He does catalogue distribution and it only pays his rent. That’s it.”

Another friend who has completed the course but her placement is excluded from aged care jobs because of her lack of experience. Lakshmi decided to return to India.

International students need help from the Australian labour movement to end the widespread exploitation and discrimination at the heart of the education trade. They can’t do it on their own. “Most of the students come over here on a temporary visa. They’ve spent lots of money to come over so they can’t usually engage in these types of organisations (such as the Federation of Indian Students in Australia). They worry that if they raise their voice they might be penalised or sent back,” Lakshmi noted.

Unions already have big battles on their hands to maintain wage rates and conditions under restrictive industrial legislation and in the grip of an economic downturn. They have to stand up for workers brought to Australia on 457 (skills shortage) visas and ripped off. But the plight of international students is bound up in this same drive to push workers’ pay and conditions way down. They cannot be left to suffer in silence. Last year there were almost 550,000 international students in the country.

Next articlePublic Denunciation

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