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The high cost of living in our cities hits our international students hardest. I spoke to Bastian from Chile about the pale conditions that are the accepted norm.
Littered throughout the Internet are advertisements for room shares, advertisements that correlate to places scattered across Melbourne, aimed – of course – at people who don’t have the money to splash on things like privacy and personal space. Things like rooming licenses are disregarded, food is labeled with names, and going to sleep doesn’t mean the lights go out.
Bastian is from Chile. He’s been here on a student visa for about a year and a half now and has stayed in more than his fair share of rooming houses. When he first arrived in Australia he found a place to stay located in the CBD of Melbourne. “It was hard to sleep,” Bastian recalls, “but the good thing was, it was close to everything.” It was hard to sleep because Bastian was sleeping in the lounge room, with two other people, in a two-bedroom apartment. The two actual bedrooms had three more people, meaning this small Melbourne apartment was home to a total of six. Bastian was often awoken during the night by others simply grabbing a drink from the kitchen.
He didn’t want to leave the cramped space, because it was so close to his work and school, but one day he came home to find all his possessions in rubbish bags. “There were no beds in the living room or anything,” Bastian says. “I asked the guys what happened and ‘we have to find a new place quick, because we are all kicked out from here’.” All three that were in the living room that is, now left without a roof to sleep under. “It was illegal to have that many people in the apartment. I didn’t know.”
After getting kicked out of his home, the Chilean didn’t get his $400 bond back, roughly his weekly wage. His visa requirements as a student mean he is forced to work for cash, and when you need to be paid cash-in-hand, there are limited career opportunities.
Having managed to have a look through one of these rooming houses in central Melbourne, it is clear the level of living standard that is being upheld throughout this system. No-one is sleeping in the lounge room, no, but are neatly packed two by four like little sardines into the two bedrooms. Each tenant has a bed – top or bottom bunk – a lockable cubbyhole, a sliver of wardrobe space, some room in the fridge and a tub to house their toiletries. All of this for about $150-$200 a week. Home sweet home.
“It was weird; they have like a kind of business,” reflects Bastian on his time in an apartment such as this. And in a world where space is increasingly becoming a commodity, that’s exactly what it seems to be; inner city property is being purchased and small portions of it leased for a great profit. The only benefit to tenants is the convenience of not filling out any forms, making this a very attractive offer for international students and workers that are willing to sacrifice personal space and sometimes piece of mind, to be close to employment and the places they study.
After getting kicked out of his home, the Chilean didn’t get his $400 bond back, a sum amounting to roughly his weekly wage. His visa requirements as a student mean that he must be enrolled in an approved course at all times – each of which needs to be paid for up front – and is not allowed to work over 20 hours per week. With these small hours of paid work, he must cover his living expenses and school fees, as well as the renewal of the visa itself each year. Bastian – like many others in his situation – is forced to work for cash in order to be employed for more than the allotted hours per week, and when you need to be paid cash-in-hand, there are limited career opportunities. He is currently studying commercial cookery and working as a chef. “I enjoy a lot,” he says, “but it’s not my passion. I love music.”
Bastian says he tried to get an apartment for himself and a friend when he first arrived here “but I never could because they were asking for a lot of papers and money. So I couldn’t afford.” Right from touch down, international students like Bastian don’t get the option of having their own space; it’s near impossible to earn enough to support themselves within the visa guidelines, and even if they do manage this by working cash is hand, actually getting a private room or a place to themselves is another challenge altogether. We forget how much of a luxury it is to have your own space, a quiet place to study and sleep, to not have to lock away your valuables and worry if an inspector may come in the middle of the day and pack up your life into garbage bags.
Bastian found a new place to stay after his first room sharing experience, with a bit more space, out in the suburbs. He was still sharing with four people in a single room but, the lounge only had a couch and TV. He would get through day after day by waking and heading to class, then work until past midnight, going home to sleep and pressing repeat. He reflects on the situation he and his fellow classmates face: “we think about the future, we need to save some money to pay the next course, and then the next course. Just to be able to stay here for longer.” He plans to save as much as he can before making his way back home. At the earliest, this will be in 2020, when his new nephew and his little sister will be five years old.
“That’s the thing I miss the most, I think,” Bastian says. “I cannot see them growing up.”