Ever got into a cab driven by an Indian driver and wondered who he’s talking to on his hands free phone, and what on earth he’s mumbling? What language is that anyway?
It’s usually Punjabi and a rough translation goes like this: “Yeah, that’s the third time I’ve asked for my $500 back…I‘ve lodged the application form. My housemate looked over it. Says it didn’t take long to get his PR (permanent residency)…The course doesn’t finish till September…Haven’t met her yet, but I’m going home in July to see what she’s like…Yeah, see you Friday. You bring the beer, I haven’t got any money.”
And then the next day I’m at Coles and the checkout chick’s Indian – in fact they’re all Indian. I go to fill my car up at the service station and guy behind the glass is Indian too. The security guard at the bank’s Indian as well. In the evening I’m at a restaurant. The waiter is not Indian he’s white Australian. But when I look beyond him into the kitchen I can see the guys doing the cooking are Indian. The man in the 7-Eleven’s Indian, the deliveryman with the van wears a turban and guess what, the early morning cleaner at work is Indian too.
If a nation’s citizens are unwilling or insufficient in numbers to fill menial roles, then of course there’s no choice but to bring in foreigners.
Where did they all suddenly come from? And why are brown people doing all these menial jobs? Twenty odd years ago you seldom came across an Indian. Now, after an extraordinarily rapid migrant intake since around the turn of this century, they make up 3% of Melbourne’s population and 2.4% of Sydney’s.
If a nation’s citizens are unwilling or insufficient in numbers to fill menial roles, then of course there’s no choice but to bring in foreigners. But how? You can’t just put an ad in the paper: “Foreigners needed to do lowly jobs.” It wouldn’t look nice.
Shortly after the Second World War, when Australia needed fit young men to build large infrastructure projects, there was honesty in the request for labour. Signs in London read “Come to Sunny Australia”. One young Irish labourer who stepped into Australia House on the strand to get out of the rain was told the Hydro Electric Commission in Tasmania was looking for 400 men to start immediately. “Australia has a place for you,” he was told. He migrated, worked on the hydro, raised a family and eventually died after a happy life in Tasmania – albeit laced with a yearning for home.
Australia still needs foreign labour today. In more recent times significant recruitment has been carried out under the guise of international education, now a $20 billion export industry. Isn’t this what the Howard government had in mind when it flung open the doors to students from abroad? A peculiar list of skills shortages, including cookery and hairdressing was established. Successive governments allowed dodgy colleges to fleece foreign students as they enrolled into shonky courses – all the while dangling the promise of permanent residency in front of them. Indeed, Australia went deep into India’s rural hinterland to recruit students.
We collectively celebrate the migrant contribution that enriches the country and fuels growth, but on an individual and personal level the story is bitter sweet.
It wasn’t until media uproar over dodgy colleges and claims of violence against Indians in 2009 that the federal government did its part in cleaning up the vocational education sector by, er, tightening up visas. You join the dots. That’s not to deny that Indians have come in under the skilled migration programme too enjoying jobs in IT, business and engineering.
The number of Australian residents born in India has tripled over the past 10 years. A considerable number have difficulties securing jobs that recognise their qualifications for lack of Australian experience. Migrants in menial jobs is not a good look for an advanced country.
Quiz any Indian taxi driver about his life and he will tell you a story of gratefulness towards Australia, curbed by loneliness and disconnection from friends and family. This is the story of all migrants. Australia is a nation built on homesickness.
We collectively celebrate the migrant contribution that enriches the country and fuels growth, but on an individual and personal level the story is bitter sweet. Thousands of lives are tempered by sorrow and a longing for home. This is the price migrants pay as advanced countries like Australia engage in the great push for growth that we call nation-building.
Sushi Das is a journalist and author. Follow her on Twitter: @sushidas1