Perth, Australia

Times get much tougher for Bhutanese students in Australia

But there is a determination to stick it out

In the July 2022 to June 2023 financial year, a record 15,552 Bhutanese got visas to Australia, of which 8,187 were students and 7,365 were dependents, while from July 2023 to February 2024 a total of 8,387 Bhutanese got visas of which 4,054 were students and 4,333 were dependents.

It is these above groups of Bhutanese who recently arrived in Australia that are facing a tough time with only 24 hours per week limited working hours from July 2023 onwards, more expensive housing and difficulty in getting jobs.

This paper talked to two female students in Perth who both requested anonymity, and Dr Sonam Tenzin who is a businessman there.

Drying Jobs

The first student, Pema (name changed), said that it is not easy to get jobs as students are only allowed to work 24 hours per week, and so many mainstream employers do not want to employ them due to the limited hours.

“In the job interview, they ask about our visa condition and the moment we say we are a student they turn us down, saying they are looking for those without such work limitations,” said Pema.

Pema said that when they do get jobs it usually pays less and below the minimum wage of AUD 23.33 per hour.

Pema said a cousin sister of hers got a job, but was only paid AUD 16 per hour which is like an exploitation as it comes to around AUD 400 per week when the sister’s weekly rent portion, itself, is around AUD 300.

Pema sad she is keenly aware that she and her sister are being exploited, but they have no option.

Pema said that given the limited pay, and to survive, there are those who work beyond the 24 hours per week but this is a huge risk as immigration officials can track via various ways, like tax data and even bank data.

“Recently there was a case where a Bhutanese student on completing his course applied for a TR visa which he got, but after 8 days the immigration officials cancelled his visa and sent him back to Bhutan saying he had earned enough after checking his bank account,” said Pema.

The officials were able to figure out that he had worked beyond his 24-hour limit per week while he was a student.

Fear has spread among the Bhutanese student community upon hearing about this case.

However, there are those driven to desperation who work beyond the 24 hours. Pema said that the white Australians don’t hire such student workers due to fear of the law, but is usually the Asian employers like Vietnamese, Chinese and Filipinos who hire such students and pay them below the minimum wage, and usually in cash.

Students have to take lower wages as they cannot complain, as they, themselves, are not within the law.

Another student, Deki (name changed), said, “The job situation hasn’t improved. Being a student makes it extremely difficult to get jobs due to working hour restrictions. Even some of my friends, who are student dependents with full working rights, are still unemployed.”

She further added, “They apply for jobs through online job portals and applications, and some even walk into restaurants, offices, etc., but they only get responses that indicate they will call if they need manpower. Some are left unemployed for more than three months, and some for six months. It’s all about recommendations. However, recommendations are no longer working due to an overwhelming number of applicants.”

Deki said that for now, she is working at a warehouse with a minimum shift of one to two days, which does not even add up to 24 hours per week.

As for the nature of jobs the students are doing, Pema said many do Door Dash which is food delivery, as even Uber is difficult to get now since only a certain number of registrations are accepted.

However, to even do a Door Dash, Pema said that Bhutanese end up spending AUD 7,000 plus in buying second hand cars.

Pema said it has been nine months for her in Australia and she got a huge culture shock initially with her unable to find work for two months. She said that online job portals don’t work anymore, given the number of applicants and limited jobs, and so she had to do a lot of walk ins to secure her job.

Pema said that many of the Bhutanese youth are working as kitchen hands and also  do vegetable and meat packing work. They can do this only because they had come with a mindset from Bhutan to be ready to do any job to make money.

Pema said apart from her university, she even took an aged care course but none of the 20 plus Bhutanese students in her class have been placed, though she also heard it takes time to get these jobs.

She said that Bhutanese who came earlier and have longer work hours are in aged care and disability care.

Living expenses

Pema said that it is impossible for a student to work the 24 hours per week and pay rent and for food and also save for university fees.

Giving her own example, Pema said she gets paid better than her sister and makes around AUD 600 a week working the legal 24 hours.

However, she has to pay AUD 200 as her share of the rent and with food, transport and other bills to pay she cannot save for her university fees, forget about saving for back home.

Pema said the only way she can afford her situation is due to her partner who has agreed to bear 70 percent of the fees.

Pema said the only hope for students like her is that once they complete the course they can get a two years TR visa, and use that time to earn and save money, but given the many visa changes happening, she is not even certain about that anymore.

Pema advised that it is easier for a husband and wife couple, as one can work full time and there is better understanding and they can even save.

She said single people should not even come, as it will be impossible for them to work and sustain on the minimal income.

Expensive Housing

Pema said that apart from work, housing is still a major issue. She said that when people reach Australia, they cannot even contact their people as people are busy and have different timings.

Pema is living in a house with 7 to 8 people, and they pay AUD 200 each.

Deki said,  “The housing issue is still the same. People continue to search for houses, and housing rentals remain too high. When you apply for a property through an agent, they ask for your rental history, which is difficult for a newcomer because individuals are unable to provide proof of their previous leasing.” 

Deki said she and her husband lived in a combined house or sharing with a Bhutanese friend for over 8 months before considering leaving due to the distance between their job stations.

“We applied and went to inspect about 20 properties, but we were unsuccessful. But when we got the house, it was a semi-detached duplex house with five rooms and the weekly rent was AUD 600 per week, which was too costly and big for a couple, but we had no other options and had to accept it. However, once our lease ends, we are planning on moving into a smaller property, which will be easier for us because we will have a rental history to offer the agent when we apply,” she added.

Deki said people charge between AUD 225 and 250 per week for a single accommodation in shared households, and it is too costly for a single person.

Dr Sonam Tenzin said that rent has effectively doubled and even tripled in some cases compared to the COVID times. A two-bedroom apartment that was once AUD 280 per week is now AUD 510 or more.

Children

When it comes to children, Pema said that normally young couples leave their children and come, but they miss them a lot, suffer emotional breakdowns and she has friends who do hours of live call chat.  The parents later get the children to join them in Australia,  and there are also cases of people moving with their children despite the difficulties, just to be close to their children.

Pema who has a child left behind in Bhutan is thinking of bringing him there once she finishes her course and can start earning better.

The white-collar jobs and business owners

While most Bhutanese in Australia are fresh off the boat and mainly do blue collar jobs, there is also a significant number of them who went to Australia earlier doing white collar jobs due to better qualifications and skills and experience. There are also Bhutanese who own their own businesses.

One such person is Dr Sonam Tenzin (real name) who owns an education consultancy business apart from handling other projects, and he had also served as the President of the ABPI association and is a continuing board member.

Sonam worked in the Department of IT and Telecom in Bhutan, and in 2013 he finished his Masters in IT from Murdoch University, and he came back to Bhutan and worked for 4 years after which he did his PhD in IT in Murdoch University and got a job in an IT Consultancy, and over the years, he handled several major projects before establishing his own businesses.

Dr Sonam represents the earlier and also current wave of well qualified and skilled Bhutanese. He said that the image back home is that all Bhutanese in Australia are doing blue collar work, but he said there are also many working as engineers, doctors, nurses, operation managers, customer service managers, consultants, etc., as they move up the ladder.

He said there are many Bhutanese working in aged and disability care sector. He said there are around 50 to 60 Bhutanese business owners in Perth, running restaurants to shops. 

He said there are Bhutanese moving to Australia because even with the current job market in Australia, it is still easier to find a job in Australia than in Bhutan. He said for those bent on heading to Australia, it is important to upskill and also have the right attitude and right connections. He also advises students to follow the rule of the land, in terms of staying within the working hours.

Coming back?

When asked if people are planning to come back with tougher visa conditions, Pema said that there is no talk of going back, and even for those who have been there for a while, they are looking at various ways to extend their stay.

Some are taking technical courses that are in the skills list, while others who cannot, are taking nursing courses which is also in need.

She said she has a friend who is talking about going to Canada if his visa is not extended in Australia, but there is no talk about going to Bhutan.  

Deki said, “I haven’t seen anyone going back, but I’ve heard rumours that individuals are returning due to difficulties they are experiencing here.”

Dr Sonam said that only very few numbers are going back, but the majority are staying back in Australia.

When asked if Bhutanese will come back, Dr Sonam said that people in his generation have a huge attachment to Bhutan and want to invest and contribute back to Bhutan, but they also need an avenue with the right policies in Bhutan.

He said he would like to open a branch of his company in Bhutan, but the regulations are not friendly, with one example being that his branch office in Bhutan cannot have the same name as in Australia. He said the environment and policies in Bhutan are not conducive, and he, as a former government official, did not see it but he can now see the issues on the other side.

He said older Bhutanese may come back at one point to avoid being in old age homes, but the same cannot be said for the younger generation who may want to stay back in Australia.

He said there are already more than 1,000 Bhutanese who have got PR.

Dr Sonam also acknowledged that there are Bhutanese who are selling their assets in Bhutan and moving the money to Australia to invest.

He said even for his generation, they may want to go back, but making an income and their kids’ education hold them back, and they have to see the education of the kids through after which the kids get married, and they may have to stay back looking after their grandkids.

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