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Homestay horror: Student intimidated, asked to cook, clean

Tiffany Leong

Fri Jun 29 2012

International student homestay horror

COOKING, cleaning and intimidation. One international student tells Meld how his seemingly “perfect” home became a house of horrors.

Four years ago, a 24-year-old Malaysian came to Melbourne to pursue his PhD. Like most international students, Garry searched for accommodation online and he soon found a seemingly “perfect” deal – a room in the home of a middle-aged Australian couple, for a mere $600 per month.

Even better,  it was only a stone’s throw away from his university.

He didn’t know much about the couple, except they both worked and had no kids. But it was’t long before Garry got to know them a little too well, when they began asking him to “help out” around the house.

“At first, they told me that it was part of the Australian culture that we would help each other, ” he recalls.

“In exchange for a place to stay, I was obliged to do their house chores such as cleaning and cooking.”

Given it was his first time in Australia, Garry didn’t suspect a thing. In fact, he was more than happy to embrace the local culture by “helping out”.

Soon, Garry found himself being asked to cook a relatively big meal for the couple every Sunday, to be packed and frozen for them to eat over the week.

“They rarely cooked. They would even bring the food that I had prepared to work,” he says.

With luck, there were sometimes leftovers for Garry. But he got used to making his own food. For the first three months of his homestay, Garry survived on cheap pasta and canned food alone – what he called his “one-dollar” meals.

But as Garry’s workload began to pile up,  the weekly housekeeping affair quickly became a nightmare.

“They would blame me whenever the house got dirty, claiming that I was the only one at home most of the time,” he says.

“They also had two cats which made things worse. Sometimes the cats would bring all kinds of funny things into the house, including dead rats.”

Related story: How to spot a rental scam

Threats and intimidation

Aside from small talk, there wasn’t any real conversation between Garry and the couple. He says they were mostly “glued” to their computer – something that became a real problem when the computer broke down.

“They started to ask if they could borrow my laptop, which was my one and only tool to study,” he says.

It soon became a daily routine for the couple to use his laptop all night so they could make money off playing online poker.

“They would return my laptop in the morning before going off to work. By then my laptop would have been overheated, making it impossible for me to use,” says Garry.

One day, Garry was so frustrated he denied the couple use of his laptop when they asked – something which didn’t turn out well at all.

“They demanded that I pay them the money they could have otherwise ‘won’ from the poker game,” he says.

“It was ridiculous.”

The couple also threatened to kick him out on several occasions.

“They warned me to be grateful because if not for them, I’ll have nowhere else to stay in this foreign land,” he recalls.

Hopeless and with no one to turn to, Garry began to avoid the couple.

In his most desperate hours, he bought a sleeping bag and stayed in his university’s library for 10 consecutive days. He only made quick trips home to freshen up during the day, when he knew the couple would be out for work.

“When they realised I was gone, they texted me saying they’ll sue me if I don’t come home,” he says.

“They claimed that it was against the Australian law and threatened to report me to the police.

“They also scolded me for wasting their food when I didn’t go back to cook for them.”

It finally got to the point when Garry decided enough was enough.

“They were furious when I told them I wanted to move out,” he remembers.

“They even threatened not to return my $600 bond if I left before the agreed one-year stay period.”

For Garry, $600 was a huge sum of money – especially after converting that to Malaysian ringgit.

“But eventually, I realised that it was not worth all the distress and pain that I was put through,” says Garry.

He moved out.

Related story: How to spot a rental scam

Learning from mistakes

To his biggest surprise, Garry came to learn about “written tenancy agreements” as he settled into his second home.

“It was the biggest mistake (not to negotiate) a proper contract with my previous landlords,” he now says.

But his “nightmare” wasn’t all for nothing. It has inspired Garry to help others who may be victims of similar circumstances.

Now, as the student housing ambassador at Victoria University, he says the student accommodation crisis is more serious than he could have imagined.

“Many international students are afraid of speaking up even though they are clearly being disadvantaged,” he says.

“They fear that their visas might be revoked and they will be sent back to home.”

But Garry says students should reach out for help if necessary. And he recommends university accommodation as one of the safest housing options for new international students.

Related story: How to spot a rental scam

Have you had bad experiences with landlords during your time in Australia? When in doubt, speak out and educate yourself on your rights by visiting the  Tenants Union of Victoria’s website.