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While the Covid-19 lockdown has affected us all, none have been as profoundly impacted as the migrant workers living in Australia with few protections – if any at all. Illustrations by Tia Kass. By André Dao and Michael Green.

We feed you

Left to right: Jennifer Banga, Tiff Tan, Baali and Putri Nazeri.
Credit: Illustrations by Tia Kass

On April 8, during a debate about the government’s $130 billion JobKeeper program, Labor senator Jess Walsh asked the Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business, Michaelia Cash, why so many people had been barred from accessing the scheme.

Walsh listed casual employees, university staff and “temporary migrant workers who can’t go home”.

Cash offered a succinct reply. “In relation to the senator’s question,” she said, “it is because the government had to draw a line somewhere.”

The Saturday Paper met with four people living on the other side of this line.

Like many other temporary migrant workers, they are employed in the food supply chain – doing low-paid work that has increasingly, over the past two decades, been done by workers with no right to stay in Australia. These people plant, pick, pack, slaughter, slice, cook and deliver food for everyone else.

Twin senate inquiries into temporary migration and underpayment are due to report at the end of the year. So far, they have received more than 170 submissions. Few contain any testimony from migrant workers themselves.

 

Jennifer Banga: You’re in your own world, you just totally forget what’s happening around you, because your mind is just on the tomatoes. For me, I like it that way. Because I concentrate more on my picking rather than to think of anything else. Most of the time, I sing a song in my head. I’m into the classics – the ’70s, the ’80s – like Phil Collins, Bryan Adams, the Bee Gees.

I pick ripe ones only. No green shoulders. We put them in a bucket hanging around our neck. Then we put them inside a box, on top of the trolley. It’s 40 boxes in a trolley, and we have to push. One glasshouse is the size of half of a football field and it’s very hot, very hot. I wear boots, long sleeves, gloves, and there’s hairnets and face masks. When we get home, we’re just worn out. It’s only Sunday that I don’t go to work.

At the end of the day, we sing, we say thank you to the big man up there. Tonight, one of the men was sharing God’s word. His story was about how there’s a big tree back home in Vanuatu called the Nabanga. The seeds are very tiny, very tiny, but it grows and becomes a very big tree. So, he was explaining that the seed is like us coming to Australia. You can have a business out of the money that you take back.

I’m the team leader. We came out from an agent back in Port Vila; the labour hire company hired us through this agent. It’s my fourth season … I’m getting used to it, because I’m always here at Mallala, it’s my second home. But on the other side, um… to be honest, it’s like… some whitefellas, they don’t think that we belong here. The job we’re doing, it’s theirs. Here in town, my first season, they told us straight in the face: “Go back to your place.” And they just laughed at us.

Even today, people are still saying that we’re here working as slaves, even though it’s a national program that supports both parties. That’s white people saying that. Like, “Why you working here? Haven’t you learnt your lesson like your forefathers?” When people say that, I want to answer them straight away, but I’ve got another friend and he kicks me under the table, because he knows me very well.

In March, Banga’s contract ended, but because of the Covid-19 lockdown she and other seasonal workers were not able to return home. She is still working at the glasshouse.

Our contract has come to an end, but they didn’t allow us to go back home. We found out a day before our flight. There was another group that was supposed to arrive the day that we were leaving, but they didn’t come. We have to wait until the government says, “Yes, the state of emergency has finished.” I was hoping that it could be a month or two, but what I heard from the labour hire company, it might take more than five to six months again. Everyone is sad. I’m missing my family.

We are still singing, every night. To be honest with you, it’s a bit hard for us to let go of it. It’s part of our life. We are still singing, yes, sitting 1.5 metres away from each other.

 

Tiff Tan: My visa expires on May 14. I need to extend it. I already paid a migration agent $5500; now they ask for more, like another $2500. It’s not right. I have been here 10 years. I was supposed to get the permanent residency already.

I’m getting used to Melbourne by now. Home? I don’t know. It’s a home – you get used to it. My career is here. I have a new job in Sorrento; he is a good boss. But the restaurant where I work, they just do delivery and takeaway now, because of the coronavirus. They don’t need so many chefs.

If the lockdown goes one month, two months, I still can survive, I still have food to eat. But after three months, I have to find a job. I hope the government will change its mind about the JobKeeper for people on visas. The government needs to be fair and equal and support every person here.

After I arrived in Australia, I studied for four years. Then I applied for a 457 visa, for working. The company that sponsored my visa is Colonial Brewing, Portsea Hotel. I was working hard for them, for two years. I was very close to getting my permanent residency. But the manager at Portsea Hotel made me redundant.

I was very depressed and anxious. The migration agent found me another hotel on the Mornington Peninsula. But they put me on a 482 visa, no residency. I worked six months’ probation and then they say they want to sponsor me, 186 visa, for permanent resident.

The boss, he does the dodgy thing. We work extra hours; he doesn’t pay us extra money. I was working 60, sometimes 80 hours a week. I still stay with them for a long time, like nearly two years, because of my visa condition. Other people come in, they last two weeks, not even one month. When they find out the boss is not a good person, they are quick, straight away leave the job.

Things were getting better after that. I got a new job, the restaurant in Sorrento. The boss, we are honest with each other. I started transitioning, too. You can hear my voice change. My mum heard my voice when I called home, she said, “What’s wrong with you? You sick?” I say, “The weather’s so hot, that’s why I’m dry.” Because I don’t need to explain that, I think now that I’m 40 years old I have the right to do what I have to do.

Before I started transitioning, I went shopping in the city, I went to the women’s toilets, people looked at me and said, “You should go to the men’s toilet.” It happened all the time. People think that I am a male.

I do the transition in Australia because it’s more safe, compared to transition in my own country, Malaysia. Doctor will assist you, check your body. You see a psychologist every month. You have to be very clear with yourself, end of the day what you want to be. Female or male? That’s why I go to see the psychologist, to do the assessment. This report, I will give this report to my parents.

 

Baali: I resigned last Friday. I caught a cold and I never went out. I am okay. I have been resting at home these days and I am completely healthy now. I have a new job – I am going in three days, to pick grapes in Mildura. I want to rush to get a second-year visa while I have work. Many working holiday-makers are unemployed. In the short term, I think it’s difficult for me to fly back to my country. My parents are worried, but I can cope by myself.

I’m 26, but people always say I have a young face. I grew up in a very ordinary family in China and received a very ordinary education, a Chinese education for everybody. After I graduated, I was working in IT. And my life – it is pretty ordinary, you can say that.

In Australia, I would like to experience a life that has more connection with nature. Not just human beings, the city and the high-rise, and always just work, work, work.

I was working in a butchery in Dandenong; the meat is beef and lamb. I started in the afternoon, 2.30, until 11.30 at night. The boxes come onto the belt, all the meat that’s been cut, and we had to classify the meat and then put it into a box and then in the storage. It’s a very big butchery, it has about 500 workers on the processing line, and from what I can tell, they are also holding working holiday visas, and some on protection visas.

Work is hard here, especially for us without English, and also without any special skill. I’ve got aches in my body – my back, my fingers, my feet and the joints of my legs. Even a machine will wear out after being used for a long time.

My first job was at a butchery at Warrnambool. I was using the butcher’s knife to cut the meat. At the end of the day, my fingers couldn’t move. I only worked for two weeks because I injured my hand. The meat is beef, big and heavy, and when you are cutting there is one speed, okay? You have to be able to cut it very fast, and I couldn’t cope.

This is a casual job, so I left. I didn’t mention it to them, because I don’t know I have the rights, and… I don’t know… my English is not very good. I am a shy person; I am not very good at expressing myself.

I want to go back. I miss my family, and time we spend as family, and the cooking in my home town. But even going back to China… working, career-wise, future, there’s a lot of challenges. So, at the moment, I took this path, I have to continue.

My parents, they are very traditional Chinese people. They hope that I graduate, I land a job, and then I work hard and eventually I get married and have an ordinary life.

I feel that that sort of life is just like a pig’s life. It doesn’t give people soul – it’s a dead life, not a living life. This is the life that they think is suitable for me. I didn’t do it the way they want me to, and I came here to see different worlds.

I’m always optimistic, okay? Until now, maybe the luck is no good in Australia, you didn’t land on a very good job, you don’t get paid well, the accommodation is not great – okay. But everything will go the right way, will go better, in future.

 

Putri Nazeri: I am a single mother. I did not get full support from my own family in Malaysia. I have a son that I cannot take care of. I was introduced by a friend to her brother’s best friend, Kerul. He said it would be safer for me in Australia. He said, “Maybe you want to move to Australia?” I don’t know, but it’s something like gambler thing for me. Because life is a gamble.

I first arrived in Melbourne. The next day, Kerul booked us a train to Griffith. After six, seven hours, we got to a farmhouse. Oh my god, what is this? Am I going to stay at this house? I’m not comfortable with it because I’m the only girl. The rest is 14 boys and with one toilet.

In Griffith, when it’s raining, we can’t work because we cannot pick oranges. After rain, we have to wait a few hours to get the oranges dry. We have to pay for accommodation, even though there’s no work, so when we have off day, we go for fishing, because we have no money to buy food.

Then, I moved to Bairnsdale because there were no jobs there in Griffith. I only had $200 in my hand. So I forced myself to work in this farm, picking broccolini for 30 cents per bunch. This contractor is very bad. We have to ask for permission even to buy groceries. The contractor said, “It’s not safe”, because we are not allowed to work here in Australia so we cannot expose ourselves.

I work almost 20 hours a day. They pay me hourly, $15 an hour. So, I will start planting at maybe 8am. I finish planting around afternoon and then rest for one hour. And then I start cutting vegetables and we finish work very late at night. We have to do it fast and we have to do it properly. If not, if you wrongly cut the vegetable, you will cut your hand. Very quickly. Moving, keep moving. You can’t stop.

And then we start doing spinach, around 12 o’clock, midnight. There’s a machine, a tractor. I just open a box and then make sure that the spinach is going in the box. It’s easy job, but still we have to work midnight until the next day, maybe 6am. At night it was really freezing, raining, storm. My fingers and toes would get swollen. My body was very exhausted, in pain.

A couple of years ago, I started working for the union. They asked me to translate one or two documents in Bahasa. And then they asked, “Can you do more this week?” So, I gave my farm work shifts to my friends. I was given the opportunity to speak at the Woolworths AGM. And I had my microphone and I told them about my experience working in farms, how bad it is. Woolworths is a very big supermarket where they determine the price of the fruits and vegetables. So that’s what I asked them to do. The CEO said sorry so many times. This is unacceptable for him, that the migrant worker is having a very bad experience. And after that nothing happened.

Woolworths sent a representative to our farm worker forum in Robinvale. And they are still in conversation with the union, but they already know what is happening. I asked them to take serious action, to stop their suppliers exploiting farm workers. So, I don’t think there’s a change. Nothing yet – just a conversation.

This story was produced with support from the Walkley Public Fund.

Tia Kass is a Walkley Award-nominated illustrator and street artist, and a member of the Workers Art Collective.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2020 as "We feed you".

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André Dao is a writer, an editor and a Walkley Award-winning podcast producer.


Michael Green is a Walkley Award-winning journalist and podcast producer.