I could not sleep. I didn’t even have dinner and breakfast and lunch, until I finished the Woolworths thing. Because for me I’m a representative of all of my friends, farmworkers – so I’m sending a message, it’s a big thing for me. It’s not a burden, but it’s something I want to do properly. I was given the opportunity to speak at the Woolworths AGM. It was a very big room, in Sydney Convention Centre. And the room was almost full, with so many people. No farmworkers. They were like, very corporate. Wearing ties, blazers – they looked nice. And I had my microphone and I told them about my experience working in farms, how bad it is.
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. I actually don’t know where it is, but I just trust this person. I thought that it will take maybe half an hour. After six, seven hours, we got to a farmhouse, it’s like nowhere. It’s dark, no street lights. 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 fourteen boys and with one toilet. And I keep on questioning, why are these people staying here and what are they looking for? I mean, I’m looking for better life but not like this.
When I woke up, Kerul and the others, they say that all migrant workers who travel here in Australia have to work in farms. Because when they arrive, the agent said, if you want to make money, you have to work on farm. And we don’t know how to apply for other job, what opportunity is there other than farm? So they have put that in our brain.
My best memory in Griffith is driving a tractor. I love a challenge and if I learn something, then it’s good for me. 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 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 live with the accommodation and the transport that they prepared for us. It was very bad accommodation, it’s dirty. I think they have five rooms and each room will have like four people live in it, sometimes more than that, with two toilets.
And we have to ask for permission even to buy groceries. The contractor said, “It’s not safe.” We are not allowed to work here in Australia so we cannot expose ourselves. So, it makes my life not easy and it makes me very angry because why, why I should listen to this person? I have no choice. I cannot run away because I have no money.
I don’t know minimum wage in Australia. I asked that contractor, “I should get more hours.” He said, “Oh, you can get more hours.” And then I work almost 20 hours a day. Three days a week he will give me planting job, and cutting, and doing spinach. So I have three jobs in a day, other than picking broccolini.
They pay me hourly, $15 an hour. So I will start planting at maybe 8am. And then 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. When I do cutting, I have to bend myself. 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. You have to work fast, you have to fill the basket. 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. I struggled myself, because I’m Muslim, so I pray every day and I could not pray properly. I had to sit down when I pray. My body was very exhausted, in pain.
And then I got job in Mornington. I’m working in packing shed. My site is bunching, so we pack celery bunch for Coles, Woolies, Aldi and market. This celery came in from the field, in the cages. They will put these six cages in front of us and there’s a table beside us so we can easily choose the good bunch to pack in the box. The weight of the celery bunch must be over one kilo. It’s a repetitive job where it hurts our hands, back and neck because we’re standing hours to do that job. One box for Woolies it’s eight bunches of celery. If it’s Coles, nine bunches, if it’s Aldi it’s 10.
And then after two months, union came to our workplace. I noticed that the company didn’t pay superannuation, they didn’t pay when we worked long hours, they didn’t pay us meal pay.
In packing shed, the best memory that I have is fighting with the boss. Because I tell him that you never appreciate the worker. I wrote three pages of letters saying that we need our money. We need a fixed smoko time. We need our superannuation and we need to be respected. I feel relief and my anger went out, like we release our stress.
After that, 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.
At the AGM, I asked on behalf of friends and workers, for them to take a very serious action towards what happened and make changes. 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. We want them to take action, not just listen. 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.