Abbas’ story: Racist bullying and assault by supervisor shows need for visa reform

Abbas* came to the Migrant Workers Centre for help after a physical assault by his supervisor left him hospitalised.

Abbas came to Australia in 2010 from Iraq. Despite living and working here for over a decade, he hasn’t been able to get a permanent visa. Instead, he was on a Safe Haven Enterprise Visa - a temporary visa that must be renewed every five years and which has extensive restrictions. Abbas got a job as a farm hand because he was trying to apply for another visa that required applicants to work in a regional area for three and a half years. 

Abbas thought he’d finally found a pathway to a more certain future. But once he started on this job, he suffered ongoing abuse and bullying from his supervisor. Abbas and his supervisor were supposed to work together across eight farms but his supervisor forced him to do all the work and made racist remarks when Abbas spoke up.

Abbas says “I don’t mind if the work is hard. I want to work… but the supervisor didn’t let me take breaks. We are supposed to have a 30 minute break but he only let me take 10 minutes. Even just walking to the kitchen from the farm took 10 minutes so I had no break.”

“When I said it was not fair to put [all the work] on my shoulders, the supervisor is swearing at me and he said ‘if you don’t like it go home’.”

Abbas says in his opinion, “[the supervisor] treats me like a slave just because I am a refugee and English is my second language.” He explains, “There was someone else called Nick who used to work with us. Because Nick spoke the same language as the supervisor, he was treated better than me. I didn’t complain. I came for work and to support my family. But I believe he treated Nick better and didn’t discriminate against Nick.”

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Despite the exploitative work conditions and abuse, Abbas stayed in the job to meet the regional work requirements for his visa application. He was also conscious that as a SHEV visa holder, his job opportunities were drastically limited as the majority of employers only want citizens or permanent residents.

However, it all came to a head one day when the bullying and abuse escalated and the supervisor physically assaulted Abbas, brutally beating him up. Abbas was hospitalised with extensive injuries that he’s still managing today. He says, “Mentally, physically he’s damaged me too much. People have to treat me as equal. There’s no reason to discriminate against me or bash me.”

Abbas heard about the Migrant Workers Centre through a friend. We assisted Abbas with applying for a WorkCover claim, liaising with the insurance company, and also provided information to him in Arabic. While hospital and ambulance fees in workplace instances like this are covered by insurance - information about this is often not known or accessible to migrant workers, leading to additional mental distress.

Abbas’ WorkCover claim has now been accepted and he’s receiving weekly payments that cover his medical costs and lost wages. But the impact of the bullying and assault is ongoing. Abbas now experiences suicidal ideation and says, “I cannot sleep from the pain - I cannot explain how this has affected my mental [health]. I now have trauma. I feel like he’s going to kill me. I feel not safe and scared.” 

Abbas is receiving ongoing support for physical and mental injuries. He wants to tell his story as it’s an extreme but not isolated example of how prohibitive visa conditions can force workers into unsafe work environments with huge consequences. The Australian Government must provide more pathways to permanent residency and scrap the restrictive work requirements attached to most visas so migrants can find work that is safe, and can speak out about abusive work conditions without fear of losing their livelihoods or their visa.

The Migrant Workers Centre is currently campaigning for more pathways to permanency. You can sign our petition for visa reform here.

*Name has been changed