Leaving behind white-collar work in Taiwan to take up jobs in the Australian meat industry was always going to be difficult. But one young couple found Australia’s immigration system and institutionalised disregard for labour laws was stacked against their dreams of success.
In 2016, when Riza and Roy first landed in Caboolture, Queensland, as backpackers - they had high hopes that hard work and sacrifice would pay off in the long run. What they found was a town that lived up to the nickname “Horror Hill”. Squalid living conditions, wage theft, and exploitation were rife.
Their labour-hire agent offered them work on a strawberry farm. But the offer was a scam. The couple paid the agent $120 per person per week for shared accommodation in a four-bedroom house where usually nine to 16 people lived. They then paid an extra $5 each for transportation to and from the farm per day. Their wages were based on a piece rate per strawberry, and the bosses kept competition between workers fierce. The wages paid to backpackers were illegal; well below the minimum required by Australia’s labour laws.
“He (the agent) was Taiwanese and he knew he could get away with exploiting Taiwanese backpackers,” said Riza. “It is a shame that people coming from the same place treat each other like that.”
The couple, who both had experience working in politics at the Mayor’s Office of Taipei, were aware that Australia’s Federal immigration policies contributed to their desperate situation. To secure a second year visa, the couple had to complete 88 days of rural work and they were forced to relocate often. The transitory lifestyle made seeking help more difficult. Eventually the couple found work at an abattoir in Kyneton, 90 kilometres northwest of Melbourne. Pay was better but still well under what they were owed according to legal minimums. “I was paid $24.8 per hour as casual boner, much lower than the Award rate of $34.8 per hour,” says Roy.
Riza and Roy noticed local staff were paid much better. Supervisors were also verbally abusive of foreign backpackers but more courteous to the local workers. Riza and Rory soon learned why - the local workers were unionised.
“The majority of Aussie workers were members of the meat workers union,” noted Roy. “I wanted to join the union and I looked it up on the internet and got in touch with Sherry from the Migrant Workers Centre to seek help. Many of my Taiwanese workmates didn’t know much about what unions do in Australia and were very sceptical. Unions in Taiwan are weak, but not here.”
Roy and Riza joined the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union and Migrant Workers Centre is now working with the union to prove the abattoir was stealing wages.
Riza and Roy both now work at an e-commerce warehouse where they are correctly paid and Roy has started an automobile mechanic course at TAFE. They hope to settle down in Australia permanently.