With a large number of Bhutanese heading to Australia these days, there are three pertinent questions that people are asking. The first question is, are there are any risks and difficulties for people going there now and in the near future? The second question is, what is the push factor or what is making people leave? The third question is, what is drawing them to Australia?
The growing risks
The President of the Australia Bhutanese Association of Canberra (ABAC), Dorji Tshering, said that in terms of the surge in the number of Bhutanese making their way to Australia, it is not a unique trend to Bhutan.
“From a regional perspective, there is a surge in people migrating to Australia, either to study or to migrate permanently from the neighbouring countries too, such as Nepal, India and China. In fact, some of the media reports here have Nepal as the leading source of overseas students to Australia as of March this year. The reports also indicate a huge spike in offshore student visa applications by about five times, just in a span of just five months between October 2021 and March 2022,” said Dorji.
He said one of the attractions drawing students to Australia is the part-time jobs, especially with the current ease of restriction on working hour limits for student visas due to COVID-19 (it is unlimited for now, up from around 20 plus hours per week in the past) and the temporary labour shortage that Australia is currently facing.
“But since now that the pandemic situation has changed quite significantly, these could change any time, which could also mean changes in the circumstances for many current or prospective students. And this is something that they will need to be aware of and consider in their Australia decision,” said Dorji.
He said another major attraction is the impression that people have of making ‘big money’ as soon as they land here.
“Well, that’s not going to happen easily. It will involve a great deal of hard work and sacrifice. You’ll need to be ready to take up any job and work your fingers to the bone, and wake up for a 2 am shift. And if you are not prepared and things go pear-shaped, it could have serious mental health implications, as you will not have the money to pay high university fees and the high cost of living, especially like in a place like Canberra,” said Dorji.
The third thing that attracts people is possibly the success stories that people hear from their friends and relatives who have been to Australia and already back in Bhutan now.
Dorji said they will need to understand that the circumstances that their friends or relatives were in when they were in Australia 5-7 years ago were much different from what they are going to expose themselves to now, in terms of job opportunities and increased competition due to increasing number of arrivals, not just from Bhutan but from other countries, too, coupled with a possible recession, possible changes in visa conditions including work hour limits, and so on.
Dorji said there is certainly a sense of pessimism amongst Australians about their future economic outlook as they stare down the barrel of a possible recession.
“But to be honest, my guess is as good as anybody’s, and we’re not really sure how things will shape up. But our folks will need to figure that into their calculation, as that could mean serious financial consequences such as loss of income, not being able to pay fees or bank mortgages back home if you borrowed money to fund your student visa application if a recession does hit as soon as they start their journey here,” said Dorji.
He explained that when COVID-19 hit in 2020-21, international students were one of the groups hit the hardest, some even queuing up for free meals at food banks.
At the height of the pandemic, some Bhutanese also returned home as they couldn’t sustain themselves, as most of the businesses were shut down due to COVID-19 pandemic, and casual jobs, which are the lifeline for international student, dried up.
A similar situation could arise again if a recession does hit the Australian economy in the immediate future.
While the unemployment rate is low at 3.4 percent, which is the lowest since 1974, on the other hand the Australian inflation rate is also at a 21-year high of 6.1 percent. This means higher rents, grocery and other costs.
The Australian Central Bank has also been raising loan interest rates to control inflation that means higher rent or housing costs, and also bigger monthly loan repayments for Bhutanese there who took loans there to buy property or invest.
Perth is already suffering from a housing shortage of sorts due to the large numbers of people from different countries and also the local Australians moving there, which has resulted in increasing house rents.
Although Bhutanese going to Australia can get jobs more easily than ever before, however, living costs will also be more expensive than ever before.
The main worry is that there are predictions for a possible recession next year in Australia, especially, if the USA enters into recession. Goldman Sachs predicts a 50 to 60 percent chance of recession in Australia if the US enters recession.
There are a lot of international economists and institutions predicting a US recession in 2023.
A recession in Australia, if it does occur next year, will be disastrous for job creation and may also wipe out existing jobs.
This is in the backdrop of large numbers of Bhutanese going for studies spending around Nu 1.5 million (mn) to Nu 2.5 mn or more for fees, airfare, visa fee, etc., not counting the first few months of expenses before getting a job.
The former President of the Association of Bhutanese in Perth Incorporated (ABPI), Tshewang Rinzin, said people should only come to Australia after being fully aware of what they are getting into, and to do research on the good and bad things. He said people should be mentally and physically prepared.
He said some people give up high level posts back home and leave their family behind, and so they have to be mentally strong and able to adapt. He added that there are people who have worked in senior positions and never done odd blue collar jobs, and so there is a huge adaptability issue including even learning the new traffic rules and so people can get stressed.
In terms of the push factor that is pushing people out of Bhutan, the former President of the ABPI, Tshewang Rinzin, said, “To be very honest, it is the bureaucracy, the hierarchy and the huge gap between the boss and the subordinates. In Bhutan, a CEO would be making Nu 300,000 a month, but a young graduate will make around Nu 20,000 and a sweeper in the same company will be making Nu 9,000 per month, but they have to eat the same food. The office working environment is very hierarchal and formal to the point there is almost a social stigma between the boss and subordinates.”
He said ministers and directors in Bhutan come in chauffer driven vehicles, and have to sit on the top, but in Australia even senior heads come in a bicycle and no one is bothered.
He said while the cultural aspect of respect in Bhutan is important, it can also get suffocating as there is so much gap between a minister and others, and the ministers become unreachable once they get the post.
He said in terms of young people, they are not even scolded by their parent at home and they enter a work place where they are scolded or shouted at, and so they leave.
Tshewang said in Australia everyone in office does their own work in a professional manner, but after work even the director and subordinates are on a first name basis, and the term ‘Sir’ is not even used. He said they even hang out together and go for a drink and are like friends.
He said in Bhutan, he would have to go for receptions for important officials and sometimes waste half a day for the sake of protocol, and this made him wonder what is happening.
Tshewang said in Bhutan there needs to be improvement in terms of the rules and service delivery.
“If we go to the hospital, we have to wait in line and that is the story for service delivery everywhere. There needs to be efficacy in service delivery as things are very bureaucratic,” he said.
He said even in Australia, when he was the Perth Association President, he would try and relax on formal occasions in things like marchang, zaling and other formal protocol, but there would those with hardcore cultural backgrounds who who put pressure on him to conform to his position and be very formal.
Tshewang said similarly in Bhutan, when a person becomes a minister, he may intend to be very democratic and reachable, but he would soon be convinced by the people around him who would encourage Lyonpo to follow the hierarchical order.
He said some people, themselves, would disapprove of a Lyonpo trying to be less hierarchical and so the Lyonpo to fit in would follow the system that makes him inaccessible to ordinary people.
Another push factor that Tshewang mentioned is that he said the private sector in Bhutan is not being allowed to grow, and the government is getting into everything that the private sector does.
He said a major challenge for the private sector or even citizens in Bhutan is access to finance.
He said, by contrast in Australia, a Bhutanese landing in Australia will have a very high credit score as he or she would not have any history of unpaid debts or bills. He said people can buy phones laptops, cars, homes, etc., on loan with no collateral and it would all depend on one’s credit score.
He said the only care one needs to do to maintain this high score is to pay one’s bills on time which is related to the score.
In Bhutan, however, almost every loan requires heavy collateral and people in Bhutan cannot get loans to buy a flat or home without collateral, but this is not so in Australia.
In terms of the pull factor, Tshewang Rinzin, said in his personal opinion Perth is one of the strongest economies in Western Australia, and was so even during the pandemic phase.
He said even in terms of the thousands of Bhutanese coming, there it is a very small percentage of the Australian population of 26 million people.
He said economically too, the people coming there are very active as they are either young or middle aged professionals, as older people nearing retirement in their 50s are not in a position to come. He said this is worrisome for Bhutan, as in every economy the productive age group is the engine for the economy.
A former journalist based in Canberra, who did not want to be named, said the growth of educational consultancies have played a major role, with these consultancies even coming as sponsors on widely watched musical shows on Bhutan. She said these consultancies get a commission from the Universities in Australia for getting in Bhutanese students.
Tshewang Rinzin said that more Bhutanese are coming to Australia due to the more than 10,000 Bhutanese there all acting as free consultancies themselves encouraging and helping relatives and friends to come there.
He said the rush for Australia picked up from 2016 onwards, and it is better compared to the past as there are more Bhutanese to help each other and a sense of community.
He said people coming to Australia would usually have some family member, like a sibling or cousin, to accommodate and help them initially.
He said there are a lot more job opportunities too, and someone will usually help you to get familiar with the place and work place.
Another major pull factor is that the earlier restriction of work hours per week for students’ visas was lifted during the pandemic time.
A Master’s Degree course in Australia is not like in South Asia of 9 to 3 classes, but there are just two days of classes in a week of a few hours each, and most of the course work is via assignments. This frees up the students to work.
Most Bhutanese, in the beginning, start with house keeping and cleaning jobs, delivery services or do small courses and enter the field of giving care to the old and disabled.
Giving his own example, Tshewang said he resigned from his post as the Head of Operations and Maintenance of BPC in 2017 to join the private sector. He also applied for Permanent Residency in Australia online, which he got due to his engineering background, and then moved to Australia in 2018 where he started with blue collar jobs and currently holds a white collar job.
He said his time in Australia over the last five years has changed him for the better, as he is now much more confident and can speak up in public, and he is exposed to working in an international setup and is exposed to a multi-cultural society.