Half a penny for your thoughts? How International Students are breaking the bank for a degree Down Under By Lisa Banks

Lisa MelbsAs I walked into the tiny Mediterranean restaurant, nothing seemed out of place. It was clean and simple, with hand written posters on the wall offering a discounted tin of soft drink with any purchase. I asked the reserved woman behind the counter to speak with the owner, Ray, whose name has been changed, and she pointed to the outside, where he stood puffing a cigarette and chatting away on his mobile. Minutes later, he came inside with much excitement and sat me down for a very unofficial interview, scribbling checkmarks alongside every line on my resume. “Okay it all looks good. But I need a number, just how much you think you would like to get an hour,” Ray said, pushing his long, wet black hair out of his face. “Well, the minimum wage for someone like me would be about $15 to $20 an hour, so I think something around there would be fair,” I told him. He nods, writes ’15 – 20′ on the bottom of my resume, and shows me to the door.

A few hours later, my mobile lit up with a new text. It was Ray. “Hi Lisa, I just finished with another interview, finally got someone who’s happy to work on $10 for working on cash register…..just letting u (sic) know to crosscheck first, I guess it’s too low hourly rate for you,????” I had sent out close to fifty resumes so far for all sorts of jobs, and had only got one other interview, from which I never heard back. I knew that $10 an hour was indecently low, but in many ways I felt trapped. It wasn’t uncommon for some desperate students to turn to the exotic dancing industry for a helping hand, and that simply wasn’t an option. After paying tuition, I was barely making rent and needed the money, so I reluctantly agreed. “Sweets, u (sic) can start at 4 today!!!!” Ray told me.

Studying abroad can be an exciting and rewarding experience. But for many International students who choose Australia to earn their degree, it certainly doesn’t come without its challenges and its price tag. International Students are risking deportation by working illegally to fund sky-rocketing education costs, say industry insiders.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle of all is the difficulty and limits of finding a part-time job. Students are forced to take on large amounts of debt, or sometimes seek illegal work as a means of funding their studies. Though tuition fees are expensive to begin with, International students are expected to pay an average of 25 percent more than Domestic students.

Around 70 percent of all educational arrivals to Australia are short-term, with a stay of less than twelve months. This figure is closely linked with the high price tag associated with obtaining an education in this country, as financial restrictions limit students from completing a longer degree. For instance, at the University of Manitoba in Canada, an international student would pay $8565.60, for a one year full-time Masters of Business degree. At the University of London in the United Kingdom, an equivalent degree would cost £16,000. However, at Griffith University in Australia, an international student is charged a whopping $22,000 for the same one-year program. But why should Australia compare itself to the other side of the world?

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, International students contributed approximately $16.3 billion to the Australian economy in the 2010-2011 financial year. It is the nation’s third largest export, directly behind coal and iron ore, making it an industry the government can’t afford to lose. However, with a growing economy, high cost of living, and expensive tuition fees, it is possible that Australia could virtually outprice itself from the competition of overseas students. Enrolments from overseas students were down 7.6 percent last year, compared to the year before.

Griffith University Career Counsellor Sharon Hensby says that the strong nationwide economy and lack of work has been a deterrent for many prospective students. “Our numbers of International students have dropped as the Australian dollar has stayed strong. So I think students are looking at where they’re getting best value for money and considering some other countries.”

Hee Kim, who requested his real name not be used in this article, is an international student from Korea currently studying Physiotherapy. He has been studying at Griffith University for two years now, but admits it hasn’t been an easy road. “Australia is very expensive, and my family cannot afford to help me pay my tuition, but they want me to study here because it helps my English and it means I get a good degree.”

Kim says he searched everywhere for a job, but even getting an interview often proved difficult. He certainly isn’t new to the workforce, having gained years of valuable kitchen and serving experience at his parent’s family restaurant in Korea. But when a small Thai takeaway shop near his home offered him a job as a kitchen hand for $8 dollars an hour, he grabbed it right away. “I work about thirty hours a week there, after school and every weekend. I don’t like that I get paid so low but I think (the owners) know how badly I need the money, and that if I quit they will find someone else who needs the money even more than me. I always said it would be temporary, you know, just until I can find another job, but I’ve been there for eight months now, and I send out a couple resumes a week….and still nothing.”

When asked why he thought it was so difficult to get a job, and why so many employers are trying to pay less than minimum wage, Kim’s answer was straightforward. “All my friends, and people from all over, from all different countries, they want to come to Australia. I think it has become too popular, and there’s too many international students here, and not enough jobs. But the Australia government, you know, I think they care about safe and fair jobs, but they don’t care if there is enough jobs. Employers, they know that it’s hard for so many of us to find jobs, so they know that it’s always easy to get someone to do their work for less because there is no other choice. Like I (said), if I refuse to do it for $8 an hour….there’s going to be someone else that will.”

It’s no secret that most students are never very well-off financially. So is there more to it then Australia’s international community living in a tiny flat and eating two-minute noodles like the rest of the world’s young adults?

According to an investigation conducted in Sydney, there is a much bigger problem to contend with. Research exposed that the forty hour per fortnight work limit coupled with the exorbitant international fees that Australian Universities charge are forcing students to move into cheap and unsafe accommodation. With few rights, and practically no assistance from the Australian government, the substandard housing often lacks basic safety, including things like no fire alarms or sprinklers. Though most of the nation’s universities offer on-campus residences, spaces are incredibly limited, meaning only a fraction of international students are accommodated. This leaves the rest to turn to the private real estate market that often exploits students who are on a very basic budget.

Nancy, an international student from China who is studying at the University of Sydney explained that because of the lack of jobs, many of her friends sleep in kitchens or dining rooms, or sometimes subdivide bedrooms into three because that’s the only way that their rent is affordable. Not only are those living conditions incredibly poor, but also dangerous. Nancy explained that the problem with sleeping in the aforementioned rooms is that they often lack windows, meaning that there is nowhere to quickly escape in an emergency.

Last September, a 21-year-old international student at the University of Sydney was killed after she jumped from a fifth-floor window to escape a fire in her apartment that had no fire detectors. This instance highlights the neglect that overseas students face, but even a student’s death hasn’t been enough to compel the Australian government to action. Financial assistance, less work restrictions, lower tuition, or a combination of the three is what international students want and need in order to have a safe and fair educational experience in Australia.

Fair Work Australia (FWA) is the nation’s governmental body for workplace relations. The tribunal has the power to enforce minimum wage and workplace rights among many other things. Di Lloyd is FWA’s manager of Media and Communications, and responds to all inquiries from various media outlets. I asked Fair Work Australia to speak to the issue of international students working in low wage jobs with no work rights. Lloyd said, “…we are not in a position to comment on that matter,” and directed me to the Fair Work Ombudsman.

The Fair Work Ombudsman responds to individual questions and complaints and investigates non-compliance with the government’s workplace standards. When asked the same question, the Ombudsman had a bit more to say, but the answer still remained incredibly vague: “Generally speaking, international students working in Australia have the same rights as everybody else. We would encourage anyone who is working under unlawful conditions or is being discriminated against to contact us for help. We have an area of our website dedicated to international students, covering areas like workplace entitlements, things to be careful of, and where to go for help when things aren’t right.” This was followed by a link to their website.

I showed Fair Work Australia’s response to Hee Kim and asked for his take, but he said he isn’t surprised. “I know help is offered, and I could complain, but then my employer will be mad or shut down, and I will lose my job. If the government helps international students more with money or lower costs then we wouldn’t need to find these jobs in the first place. If no one was willing to work for a little amount because they didn’t need to, then maybe these kinds of jobs wouldn’t exist anymore and everyone would get minimum wage like they are supposed to.”

I worked a total of 7 shifts for Ray, turning out an average of $40 or so at the end of each night. I was to serve customers, help make food, stock product and hand clean all of the dishes, as well as the front of the shop. To me it felt as if the amount of responsibility I was given constituted at least minimum wage, and though I mentioned on several occasions that perhaps I should be getting paid a little more, it was always brushed aside.

Whenever I worked, it was only ever Ray and I, meaning I never came in contact with any other employees, although I could see by the handwritten roster that a few others worked there. One evening when he stepped out of the store for his hourly cigarette break, and I was left alone, I ruffled through a few files under the cash register and came across a pile of resumes. All had various numbers, or expected dollars per hour written on the bottom of them. I quickly matched them with the names on the roster and saw that those with the lowest numbers were employees.

But even with the relief of finally making some ends meet, trouble started early on as I quickly saw that cash in hand meant that all of my work rights were virtually non-existent. Ray began treating me more like his girlfriend, and less like an employee. He would send me texts outside of work, just to “chat”, and insisted on driving me home at the end of shifts. Yet I had no one to complain to, and was even reluctant to stand up for myself for fear of losing my job. However, once Ray became comfortable enough with me, he insisted I join him on a two-week, all expenses paid, trip to Thailand. Each shift became uncomfortable, and I decided that, as much as I needed the money, it came with a price that was worth far less than my dignity.

Studying abroad is meant to be a rewarding social and cultural experience. However, if Australia continues its pattern of treatment towards international students, it may not be long before ‘Down Under’ does just that on the list of popular overseas destinations.

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