In the past few days the Indian media in New Zealand has proudly reported that Pranab Mukherjee will be the first Indian President to visit this country. During his short visit from 30 April to 2 May the President will, among other events, address the students at Auckland University of Technology’s (AUT) Business School and meet with Indian business and community leaders.
What does the Indian President’s visit have in common with the title of this article?
The same media articles have also reported that 23000 Indian students studied in New Zealand last year alone. While it sounds very impressive for a country like New Zealand to educate and provide skills to international Indian students, we need to unravel the situation to uncover the actual facts.
The serial exploitation of Indian students begins long before they set foot on New Zealand soil. The process of course selection, education provider selection and visa applications is mostly conducted through agents in India. The legitimacy and competency of these agents is demonstrated by the shattered dreams of the victimised students. Neither is it a one-off case here and there, thousands have been made to lose hope. The typical scenario is that the agents in India convince their clients that they will be studying at world class institutions and will gain valuable qualifications. During this period they will easily find a job for up to 20 hours per week that will pay them well enough to live in New Zealand. On completion of their education the students will find a good job that will enable them to get permanent residence in a short time period.
The reality is that in most of the cases the students or their families have no or very little funds at the outset. Therefore the funds are generated through a combination of using up life savings, personal loans, bank loans, selling lifelines such as agricultural land etc. According to a 2015 survey, that year approximately 41% of Indian students in New Zealand carried a debt of $10,000 to $40,000 each. Repayment of this debt very quickly leads to a downward spiral of exploitation in most cases.
Most of the tertiary education providers that are recommended by the agents are legal entities but far from world-class education providers. Many are just a shop front for getting more bodies and cheap slave labour into the country. Some have even started holding ‘classes’ almost 24 hours a day so that they can fit around shifts of working students.
As for finding a well-paid 20-hour job during term time and a full-time job in the holidays, the state of the global economy means most countries are not able to provide their citizens/residents with decent employment to lead a reasonable life. In the current climate of economic downturn and with New Zealand’s unemployment rate hovering at around 6% for past 3 years, it is near impossible for freshly arrived, mostly inexperienced students to find jobs immediately. To add to their difficulties a lot of the Indian students know very little spoken English. This essential skill can only be achieved by living in New Zealand for a period of time and learning through observation and experience. As well as the language barrier, students are also faced with the culture barrier. If we do not allow ourselves time to observe and learn ways of a new family, new community, new country etc. we may end up behaving inappropriately and offend others. Time is also required to gain local knowledge about many important factors such as banking, the healthcare system, public transport use, finding accommodation, general shopping for day-to-day needs, finding amenities, employment rights, legal obligations of New Zealand residents, driving laws, etc. Time is something that debt ridden students do not have on their side. Their first instinct and need is to have an income source for survival in New Zealand and to send money back home for loan repayments. Very few are fortunate enough to be financially sound and therefore be able to solely focus on their education.
At present the legal minimum wage in New Zealand is $15.25 per hour and all adults (aged 18 years and over) regardless of their immigration status must be paid this rate. But in real terms the average pay rate of Indian temporary migrants (students and work visa holders) is about $13 per hour, a 2015 survey shows. Also reported in the survey and highlighted in New Zealand media recently was the case of an Indian restaurant chain that was paying its workers as little as $2 per hour. Indian students in New Zealand have been suffering in many ways: no pickup at the airport on first arrival, no reliable contacts, no written (or incorrectly drawn up) job contract, being underpaid - working more hours than paid for, not being paid on starting a new job under the guise of training, working without breaks and not being compensated for missed breaks, being paid in forms other than money e.g. meals for restaurant workers, working more than one job to earn enough, being forced to work back to back shifts without adequate rest breaks, being forced to perform duties not listed in their job contract, having to live in accommodation unfit for human habitation, suffering physical and mental abuse/torture, facing threats from employers, their employer not paying tax on their behalf, having their passport confiscated by the employer, employers making false promises of helping student employees to get work visa or permanent residence… The list goes on.
New Zealand law requires the employer to provide the employee with a written job contract. This document must at least detail the pay rate, duties/responsibilities of the job, hours of work, annual leave, sick leave and public holiday entitlement. The majority of these workers are never given a written contract. Of course the existence of a written contract does not guarantee that the worker will not be exploited, but it does act as a safeguard and makes the worker fully aware of their legal rights.
With a huge burden of debt, false hopes and very little practical and realistic information about New Zealand and its ways, the future of India arrives. Not many receive the education that they deserve. Then there is a large contingent that is using the student visa route to enter New Zealand legally, and whose ultimate goal is to stay in the country permanently or at least for years beyond their so called education. In most cases the dreams are not realised at all or it is too little too late. The biggest tragedy is that the victims themselves rarely realise that they are being mistreated or if they do realise they prefer to suffer in silence. The occasional student worker has raised their voice and achieved largely positive outcomes. However, the price paid is usually a big one; they are often labelled ‘trouble makers’, jeopardising their residency hopes and discouraging others from following suit.
So back to the original starting point of this article… the President’s visit. No doubt Pranab Mukherjee is visiting New Zealand to strengthen trade ties and that can only be a good thing for both countries. Why else would he be addressing the students of AUT business school? However, as President of India, his first and foremost duty should be securing the well-being and development of citizens of India (at home and overseas), which ultimately would lead to true progress of India as a country. During his visit, the least he could do is to meet and listen to the Indian international students, the most oppressed n New Zealand at this point in time. And yet he will be addressing the students of the AUT business school. Why is this misplaced? Let’s just look at the figures. The AUT website states that in 2014 the university had 2,660 international students.2 A Ministry of Education report states that in the same year, about 20,000 (out of a total of 84,000) students came to New Zealand from India, this being the second highest contributor to the international student market of New Zealand at 24% of the market share. So the President will be addressing at best 639 (24% of 2,660) Indian international business students at AUT.
In my 13 years in New Zealand I have yet to meet one Indian student, never mind 639, undertaking a business related qualification at one of the leading tertiary education institutes such as AUT. The debt-laden students can only afford the lesser quality colleges. The President must then be here to spot the business tycoons of tomorrow rather than ensure a happy and prosperous future for ordinary Indians, at home and overseas…….