Being on a temporary visa made standing up against workplace exploitation and harassment difficult for Felisia. But joining her union empowered Felisia despite her uphill battles with an unjust visa system.
Felisia* came to Australia from Southeast Asia as a 29 year old on a student visa in 2009.
She had a bachelor's degree in business management from her home country and continued her studies in Australia with a further diploma in business management. Despite having worked in the industry, Felisia had great difficulty finding work after she finished her studies.
She says, “I started to look for a job, but it was hard. Employers wanted local experience and were reluctant in hiring people with a temporary visa. It took me six months to secure a job in my field.”
Felisia eventually found a job as a marketing manager however she was underpaid from day one.
“I was paid $15 per hour but at that stage I was happy because I had a job.” Employment meant Felisia could apply for a skilled sponsorship visa.
In addition to the wage theft, Felisia’s boss also began to harass and bully her at work. He made her stay late without pay, and began asking her to accompany him to events outside of work hours.
Felisia explained, “I replied I could not accept it as it was not part of my role as marketing specialist to be on duty and to accompany him.”
She experienced outbursts of anger when she refused his requests, and his behaviour escalated to sexual harassment in the form of unwanted touching.
Felisia eventually reported his behaviour, but explains that at the time, “I was embarrassed and […] I was scared I would have risked my visa.”
Felisia was eventually dismissed and lost her job. Her fears around her precarious visa circumstances at the time meant she did not pursue an unfair dismissal claim. Moreover, she had to restart her permanent visa eligibility process – despite the harassment she had endured.
Felisia’s difficult predicament highlights how Australia’s visa system pushes migrant workers to accept exploitative work conditions in hopes of securing their life in Australia. Our Lives in Limbo report last year found workers on employer sponsored visas had the highest self-reported levels of stress. Felisia’s story shows how the visa system is stacked against workers seeking justice.
However, there was a glimmer of hope for Felisia. She eventually found another job in her field and it was around this time that she also learned about unions and her rights at work. She joined the United Services Union.
Felisia says joining a union has completely transformed her confidence at work. “With my previous employer, I didn’t know what my rights were at the time. I didn’t know I was being harassed or bullied. You don’t know what you don’t know.”
Now Felisia says when she has questions at work, “if I ask my union, I know for sure the advice is reliable. I know I will be protected. I know they will be on my side.”
“If your employer is doing the right thing, they wouldn’t tell you to not join the union, they have nothing to be afraid of.”
While she’s still fighting an uphill battle to stay in Australia and for her permanency, Felisia says joining a union has transformed her experience working in Australia. Her advice for other migrants is, “Joining a union is your right, you should never be afraid.”
*Name has been changed