Exploited Indian students turning to suicide, support group warns

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 18 September 2017

Some Indian students are turning to self-harm or suicide because they are under pressure to get residency and being exploited by unscrupulous employers, a group representing migrant workers says. In today's Voices Lynda Chanwai-Earle is in Auckland and Katy Gosset is in Christchurch with this special report into a growing problem

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Paying the ultimate price for labour exploitation

Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Loveleen Singh misses Gagan and is still angry about her friend’s death. Gagan, a former international student so desperate to stay in New Zealand she "bought" a job, was just 23 when she took her life in May this year.

Loveleen Singh says stop the exploitation.

Loveleen Singh says stop the exploitation. Photo: RNZ Katy Gosset

A group representing migrant workers says they are seeing immigrants taking a range of extreme actions, including self harm and suicide, in the face of growing pressure to get residency.

While the precise reasons behind suicide are complex, Loveleen says the pressure put on her friend by employer exploitation and changing immigration laws became too much.

"Gagan was getting exploited, so not getting paid," says Loveleen. "She had to pay her own wages, her own taxes every week. It was just unbearable. It was too much to take on and she committed suicide."

Gagan is not her real name; the case is still with the coroner and her identity is being protected for her family’s sake. Gagan came to Auckland from Punjab in India to study I.T. After graduating, she was joined by her husband and mother-in-law in South Auckland. But to stay in the country she needed a job. So, Loveleen says, she agreed to a practice called "job selling". Effectively, Gagan paid her own wage.

Loveleen came to New Zealand in 2006 as an international student from India and met Gagan through social media as a DJ on Radio Spice. Heavily involved in community work with the South Asian population in Auckland, she co-founded the Indian Students Welfare Association at Auckland University.

For her day job Loveleen is a product manager in banking. She says Gagan moved onto a work visa and found employment through an IT repair company. But to get the job, she had to buy her way in.

“The employer in this situation would have had an agreement with them – I will help you out. You do the work in my shop and I won’t pay you. You pay yourself on an agreement that I’ll help you out with your visa moving forward.”

The family struggled to live on her one income.

In April this year, the government proposed changes to the skilled migrant visa. Under the new plans, those with temporary work visas who were earning less than the median wage ($23.50 an hour or $48,859 per annum) would have to leave after three years.

While no-one can know what ultimately drove Gagan to take her own life, Loveleen says that heaped pressure on her friend, who was already being exploited by her employer.

Concern about extortion through job-selling is a growing problem in what National's Tertiary Education spokesman Paul Goldsmith says is our fourth largest export industry. Students and graduates face deportation if their employment falls through.

Post study work visa giving students ‘false hope’

Sucharita Varma and Zoya Kara from Sahaayta Counselling Services in Auckland.

Sucharita Varma and Zoya Kara from Sahaayta Counselling Services in Auckland. Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

At Sahaayta Counselling and Social Support Services in Counties Manukau, counsellors Sucharita Varma and Zoya Kara bear the brunt of distressed students. They point to 2014 as the time they started to see a rise in this sort of exploitation, with the exponential rise in enrolments by international students. Sucharita says responsibility lies with the New Zealand government and an education sector that trades on false hope.

“While no student visa comes with an attachment that says you will be employed in New Zealand – you are giving them hope [with the] one year ‘open job search visa’”

The “open job search visa” allows international students to stay on in New Zealand temporarily while looking for a job after studying in this country. The idea being that securing a job will lead to a more permanent visa.

Barrister Arunjeev Singh deals with hundreds of desperate students

Barrister Arunjeev Singh deals with hundreds of desperate students. Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

“But it’s a false hope you are giving them,” says Sucharita. “The person you’ve bought in can barely have a conversation – how are they going to service the community of New Zealand? It is just not acceptable. Now we are sitting with people who have been in the country for four years, six years who keep renewing their work visas because the burden of going home is too much, because of the shame. And then they need the money to survive.”

Zoya says there is a responsibility with our communities. “It’s the cash jobs; three dollars, five dollars an hour – it’s the community that is employing them.”  

Papatoetoe Barrister Arunjeev Singh has first-hand experience dealing with students and graduates who have been exploited. They come to him desperate for legal aid and he says they number in the hundreds. “Over the last couple of years – the people in trouble, in terms of international students, that has multiplied.”

‘We need to stop this, change this culture’

Peter Devoy (Immigration NZ) and Kevin Finnegan (Labour Inspectorate)

Peter Devoy (Immigration NZ) and Kevin Finnegan (Labour Inspectorate) Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

What does "job selling" look like? “We’ve seen various types,” says Labour Inspectorate, acting National Manager Kevin Finnegan. “Up-front cash payment or where they’re on the payroll but they’re paying back cash, which becomes extremely difficult to trace.

The only way we can get to the bottom of it is if they do come forward, but if it’s cash – the level of evidence [makes it] extremely difficult to take them to court. The trail of evidence has gone cold. We need to stop this, change this culture.”

Peter Devoy Assistant General Manager at Immigration NZ says it’s about understanding the climate where exploitation takes place. “They might have been introduced to friends or family into that situation and [been] exploited. Once again blowing the whistle on people that they are close to.”

Whatever action might be taken in future, it’s too late for Gagan. Loveleen wants justice for her friend’s widowed husband and family.

“Because it’s suicide they kind of blame her for [it] – “she killed herself” – but no-one has tried to find the reason why. I don’t think anyone really cares or has the time and capacity to dig deeper into this case. I think they’re owed compensation from the employer. There has to be leniency for the family considering what they’ve been through.”

The Labour Inspectorate encourages anyone in this situation, or who knows of people in this situation, to phone its call centre on 0800 20 90 20.

Read more on the Labour information website

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7)

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What's Up: online chat (7pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 children's helpline (1pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-10pm weekends)

Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.