Stories of student life: “You have to pass through hell to get to heaven.”

WORK, study, and saving up – Rebecca Di Nuzzo speaks to some international students to find out the cost of their search for a better life.


Strolling into Northcote Plaza, Jhon Rodriguez, 26, appears relaxed. Once he starts talking it’s obvious why.

Born and raised in Columbia, Jhon remembers his hometown as a treacherous place where dead bodies could often be seen lying in the street.

Moving to Melbourne in 2011 gave Jhon and his wife a chance to start afresh. Like many immigrants, they welcomed the change and looked forward to the promise of a better future in their adopted home.

“Anything just to stay here. To buy a space in Australia.”

“We thought to come here and expand our minds. To have a change. We needed that,” Jhon says.

But even with the relative peace and security, the two years since the couple’s arrival in Australia have been turbulent, due to the significant financial and emotional burdens they experienced as international students.

Residing on a student visa, Jhon is learning English while juggling work commitments to earn a living, pay course fees and save money to meet his visa obligations.

“We have to pay $2,000 at the beginning and $6,000 at the end of the year,” Jhon says.

 With little savings and have no family connections in Australia, these costs are difficult to bear for Jhon and his wife. Both are currently working as cleaners to pay study fees and meet the cost of living, but Jhon says that scraping together the funds  is a daily struggle.

We can just work 20 hours per week. But Melbourne is one of the most expensive cities in the world.”

Visas cost money to obtain and renew, and under Australian Government regulations students must also have sufficient savings to show they can cope with the cost of living. Therefore, for many international students, saving money can be a serious matter.

Jhon and his wife’s visa will expire at the end of the year. He says they will need $12,000 in savings to be allowed to renew them.

“Every year you have to look for that money. You have to show more money, all the time,” Jhon says.

“We can just work 20 hours per week. But Melbourne is one of the most expensive cities in the world.”

“To live, you must work more than this,” he says.

The need to make ends meet while paying course fees and scrounging together savings forces many students to resort to illegal employment. Jhon says it’s common for international students to break the conditions of their visa and take on a second or third job where the pay is cash in hand.

“Anything just to stay here. Just to buy a space in Australia,” he says.

This leaves students liable to abuse. Cash salaries allow unscrupulous employers to pay below minimum wage, meaning they can increase their profit margins on the backs of desperate students.

Working below minimum wage

David Zhang, 21, an international student from China, is in this situation.

While he works one part-time job to supplement the living allowance supplied by his parents, he has found it difficult as an international student to find an employer willing to pay him the legal wage.

I had no idea how much I should get paid, so when my boss said ‘you start at $10’, I thought ‘Oh God, that’s a lot’.”

For nearly three years he has worked at a popular franchise for below minimum wage, receiving just $10 to $11 per hour.

He says that when he started working in Australia he had no idea what the minimum wage was.

“I had no idea how much I should get paid, so when my boss said ‘you start at $10’, I thought ‘Oh God, that’s a lot’,”

But when he realised he was being ripped off he started looking for another job. His attempts have so far been unsuccessful.

“I tried to apply for other places, but it didn’t work out,” David says.

Related story: Students vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers, landlords

The practice of underpaying international students has been difficult for regulatory bodies to stamp out. And while the Victorian Government’s International Student Care Service provides free confidential advice for international students, there are some like David are reluctant to report their employer.

“Part of me thinks he’s a good guy but another part really thinks he should pay the legal wage,” David says.

Things don’t get any easier for some international students when they can finally apply for permanent residency.

“You have just a few options,” Jhon says of the list of skilled occupations migrants can choose from to qualify for residency without requiring sponsorship.

Although Jhon’s passion lies in industrial design, which isn’t on the list, he says he’s happy to make a compromise.

But the list is not set in stone. In July 2013, five occupations were removed and Jhon says this left some international students stranded. They had been in the middle of studying a course to qualify for skilled migration when suddenly the occupation was removed.

Such difficulties illustrate how hard it is for some people to become Australian residents.

High hopes

Psychologist Sarah Godfrey of Moving Mindsets says the difficulties of migrating to a new country are often underestimated.

She says the lure of a new country is often inflated. When people realise how difficult it is to build a life from scratch they cannot cope with the harsh reality of their situation, especially if the move has incurred large financial loss or involves upskilling to obtain a job.

But while things have been hard and the journey is far from over, Jhon remains optimistic about the future.

He says he doesn’t regret the decision to come to Australia, and getting through the tough times will be worth it if he and his wife are permitted to stay.

“You have to pass through hell to get to heaven,” he says, quoting his favourite philosopher Osho.

Editor’s note: This story was provided en gratis as a contribution outside of Rebecca’s role as a reporter at Meld and has been edited prior to publication. You can read the original article here

There are 2 comments

  1. Matt

    It’s tough for international students trying to earn money. We had a blacklist of companies that weren’t paying students the minimum wage (or poor working conditions).

    The list was packed and very popular. Hopefully Jhon gets some more luck in the future!

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