Shackled to a bank loan

A labour supplier saddles Indian nurses with massive debt but their workmates and the NSWNA are on their side.

For Susan Jain and Sangeetha Pillai, Australia wasn’t the obvious destination when they decided to leave their homes in Kerala, India, to further their nursing careers.

For Sangeetha, with an honours degree in nursing, an MA in Sociology, eight years experience as a clinical instructor at a college of nursing and an exemplary level of English, there were also opportunities in the USA and Europe to work as a nurse.

Susan, with 12 years under her belt working as an RN, also had the qualifications and experience to work anywhere in the developed world.

‘We knew a lot about what it was like to work in the USA and Europe because there are a lot of Indian nurses working there, but we didn’t have much knowledge about Australia – except for cricket and kangaroos,’ said Sangeetha.

But when an agency arrived at their workplaces promoting jobs in Australia the incentives were seductive.

‘They gave a good impression about what you’d be paid, about the lifestyle and the professional opportunities,’ said Susan.

The Indian agency, Sir Edward Dunlop Hospital Pty Ltd, linked to an Australian agency NI, told them they would be earning 2 lakhs (200,000 rupees) worth $5,755 per month as RNs in Australia; astronomical amounts of money for India.

There was a catch – before they could start work as RNs they had to do a six-month course at La Trobe University in Melbourne – for which they would need to take out a bank loan organised by the agency for 8 lakhs ($23,000). They were told this was to buy things they would need for their course like computers and mobile phones.

‘When we went to the bank the amount had changed from eight to 14 lakhs (over $40,000),’ said Susan. ‘In India, even for a middle class person, these are life savings.’

At the bank, feeling under pressure, they signed a large wad of papers including for the loan. The next afternoon they were told their visa had been approved. They flew out a few hours later.

‘We were rushed into making a decision. It was hard to make a judgement,’ said Sangeetha.

They never received any papers from the agency or the bank about the loans.

On arrival in Australia the dream opportunity they had been sold in India started to look more like indentured labour.

During the course, they were initially given $100 a week for living expenses from the loan that was now administered in Australia by NI. This amount was later raised to $120 after they protested strongly that they couldn’t live on it.

‘Getting the money was literally begging. We never saw a penny ourselves from the loan,’ said Susan.

‘Then we met other Indian nurses who were practising as RNs in Australia after doing a six-week course and who had only required a loan of 2 lakhs ($5,755).

‘Then we realised what was going on. I felt helpless.’ The loans still remain outstanding but the NSWNA is advising Susan, Sangeetha and 19 of their colleagues of their legal rights.

They are also buoyed by the support they have received from their employers and colleagues, with Susan now working at St George Private and Sangeetha at Unanderra Nursing Home near Wollongong.

‘My NUM tried hard to solve the problem. The hospital helped with permanent residency. Everyone was very supportive from the beginning till now,’ Susan said.

‘The nurses union has also been very good to us. At least someone is standing alongside us.’