Overseas students struggle after hospitality sector smashed by pandemic
“It was a very good environment – it was fun to work.”
She signed a permanent part-time contract with the hotel in January 2020. In March, they stood everyone down and then in August the hotel sacked everyone.
“It just shattered everything.”
Sachdev comes from Kolkata, where more than 3000 people have died from coronavirus.
“Right now they are pretending that COVID is over and just going about their lives.”
When the first shutdown happened, Sachdev understood: she could see Australia was managing the crisis in a way that she expected any developed nation would.
“When the second shutdown happened I was like ‘OK, now I really need to start worrying’,” Sachdev says.
“This is what I would have expected to happen in India. Not here.”
Sachdev has been in Melbourne for three years on a student visa and under its conditions she can only work 20 hours a week while finishing her studies at a French cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu, in Moorabbin. Her study costs around $30,000 a year and while she was able to work the sums roughly added up.
One by one, Sachdev’s friends who were overseas students lost their jobs. All of them were paying a local training institute for a qualification and were appalled at the lack of help offered by the Australian government.
“If I told you how much I paid in taxes, you would understand why we thought we would get help,” she says.
“If we are tax residents for tax purposes, we deserve something, don’t we?”
Sachdev says that she and every other overseas student she knows were counting down the days last July until they could claim their tax return. As they had lost their jobs, most ended up being owed money by the Tax Office.
“We all had it set on our calendars – I claimed it the second I could.”
The money helped get her through another few weeks.
“But eventually I had to ask for money from my parents. I didn’t want to. We have a travel agency business, so that was terribly affected. But luckily they had some savings they were able to lend me.”
Council of International Students Australia national president Belle Lim says Sachdev’s experience was common, particularly among students from India and Nepal.
She says many had run out of money and, unlike Australian citizens, they were offered little or no support.
“So they are left with almost no options,” Lim says.
“Homelessness, skipping meals, mental health issues, they are some of the things I have seen during the pandemic.”
However, she acknowledges there have been improvements for many in recent months.
She says Australia’s decision to exclude international students from JobSeeker and JobKeeper, along with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s call for temporary visa holders to simply go home if they couldn’t support themselves, had hurt the nation’s economic future.
The Morrison government had created a “narrative of us versus them, and the [education] sector is seeing the consequences”.
“During COVID the number of overseas students in the UK and Canada, a lot of them were going to come to Australia – but they have seen how unwelcome they were.”
Lim, who moved to Australia from Malaysia, says many students were simply going home before finishing their study.
“That is so unfair because they spent so much money.
“I did a degree at Monash and it was $20,000 a semester.”
For Sachdev, since losing the job she loved at the Grand Hyatt, life has been tough.
She shares a flat with a friend in Armadale, in Melbourne’s south-east, and the rent eats a hole in what money she has left each month.
“There was a point where I wondered ‘Well what am I going to do?’,” Sachdev says.
“You try to avoid spending on anything. I used to ration my groceries and not spend one cent outside that food.”
Sachdev hopes to find part-time work at a restaurant or cafe soon, but says her ability to only work 20 hours a week makes it harder. She says that’s why the Grand Hyatt job was so perfect, because the hours were limited but the experience was fantastic.
She is giving herself until her course ends in July. “If I haven’t got a stable job then, I will think about going home.”
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Clay Lucas is a senior reporter for The Age. Clay has worked at The Age since 2005, covering urban affairs, transport, state politics, local government and workplace relations for The Age and Sunday Age.
Senior Reporter at The Age