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The coronavirus pandemic has only heightened the precarious situation in which international students often find themselves, with many forced to take on jobs that pay less than the minimum wage. By Ayesha Tiwana.

The reality of life as a foreign student

The first time I went to the survival centre was in March 2019. The money I had come with to Australia had run out. Rent was due and I needed food.

At the survival centre, which is operated by the university where I study, I asked if I could have some groceries. One of the women working there took me to a small room with shelves of non-perishable goods and big storage buckets filled with clothes. She gave me a plastic grocery bag and told me to help myself.

I picked up a few things, feeling guilty and ashamed. She told me to take a little more so it would last longer. She asked why I was there and as she did I felt my throat constrict and my eyes well up.

I hid my face in one of the shelves and tried to speak normally but I heard my voice crack as I was talking. “I don’t have any money,” I told her. She asked me why not and at that point I couldn’t control my emotion: I broke down crying and explained my financial situation in detail.

I had been looking for work since I arrived in Melbourne in December 2018. In the jobs I did get after months of searching, I was paid less than the minimum wage. When I complained, I was fired. I had $700 left.

The woman at the survival centre gave me a box of tissues and started helping me fill the bag.

 

I am in Australia on a student visa, studying a master’s degree in communication. I have an MBA and three years’ professional experience, but at every marketing- and business-related interview I went to I was told they don’t hire people on student visas, even for part-time positions.

Someone from my class suggested I try hospitality. I applied for jobs through Gumtree and Facebook groups and walked around distributing CVs to restaurants. I was rejected over and over. My confidence plummeted. I needed to make next month’s rent. I didn’t want to go back to the survival centre.

I bumped into my classmate at the library. She told me she recently left a job and I should go apply for it. It was at Docklands, more than an hour’s tram ride from where I lived, but she said the owner was from Pakistan so he would hire me since we were from the same country.

The next day, I went to the pizzeria and spoke to the owner. He offered me a job. I was told I would be paid $16 an hour, cash in hand. He said I wouldn’t pay tax, so I was saving money. “It’s easy work,” he said. “Anyone can do it.”

According to a recent study of wage theft and international students, published in June, more than half of the international students working in Melbourne are paid less than the minimum wage, which is $19.84 an hour. In Sydney the figure is 46 per cent; and in Brisbane, 45 per cent.

The report found that 48 per cent of international students “did not seek information or help for problems” because they feared they would lose their job. It found 7 per cent lost their jobs after complaining about employment conditions.

I started the job at the pizzeria. There were two other girls working there, both international students, one from India and the other from Pakistan. Fariha,* 24, told me she couldn’t find a job for three months. She finally found a job on Gumtree, as a kitchen hand, but the pay was $14 an hour. “Apparently this is the best I can do,” she said.

At the pizzeria, the owner would constantly complain about the electricity bill and rent. He would get angry if anyone put more than the bare minimum of toppings on a pizza. I was only getting a few hours of work a day and the $16 rate wasn’t enough. I asked for more hours and then didn’t get a call for a week.

I went to look for another job. I was hired at an Italian restaurant in Hawthorn. I signed a contract that said an employee would not be let go without prior notice. In my first week I was given three hours’ work. In the second, I was given the same. I asked for more hours and I was let go on the spot.

I called the legal service at the university where I study and they told me they don’t deal with these kinds of problems. I contacted the union but I am not a member so they couldn’t help. I did not pursue it any further. I still hadn’t made rent.

I kept looking. After a few weeks I was hired by a cafe in Burwood for $15 an hour. It was a busy cafe with a regular customer base who would regularly leave tips in the tip jar. These were never given to the employees, all of whom were international students.

The owners were a brother and sister, and the brother constantly shouted at me. Once he grabbed my arm and shoved me aside because he thought I was cleaning a table badly. Every time I worked with him I left in tears. He saw me crying and shouted at me: “You don’t like it here, just leave and see if anyone else hires you. I am nice that I gave you this job.”

Nine months in Melbourne had shown me he was right, so I stayed put.

As I wrote this piece, I called him to ask why he had paid me less than the minimum wage. He said because it depends on “experience, certification and personality”. He denied the real rate and said tax had to be factored in. I pushed again. He said: “Don’t argue with me.”

 

Eventually, I managed to get a job as a waitress with the proper wage. However, when the pandemic hit in March I was let go. I got another job at a pizza shop for $15 an hour but when Covid-19 restrictions were further tightened I was sacked.

Employers know that nobody else is going to give international students a chance.

There has been no extra support during the pandemic. We are not eligible for JobKeeper or JobSeeker. On April 3, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said: “If they’re not in a position to be able to support themselves, then there is the alternative for them to return to their home countries.”

Without government support during this pandemic, the choice being offered to international students is to be exploited or to go home. After spending thousands of dollars to come here, am I supposed to just give up?

In the end, I covered my rent with the help of a rent relief grant and a one-off payment set up by the Victorian government. People in the community donated grocery items to international students; unfortunately, due to Covid-19, the survival centre was not operational. This is how most of us international students have been able to make rent. Everything we make we save for rent, rather than for food or any other experience.

I eventually got hired by my university for a casual position as an ambassador, which allowed me to survive the hard lockdown and have enough money to cover the rent, as long as I kept my other expenses in check.

I decided to stay in Melbourne in the hope that after all this struggle, when I’m no longer tied down by the work limits of my visa, I will have better job prospects with a local degree backing my résumé. Despite the struggles and challenges, I believe all my hard work will not go to waste. 

* Name has been changed.

This piece was supported by funds from the Google News Initiative.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 7, 2020 as "The reality of life as a foreign student".

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Ayesha Tiwana is a feminist, former marketer, current communication student and aspiring journalist.