Date: 9 Sep 2019
Source: Migrant Workers Centre
Transiting from white-collar jobs at a mayor’s office in Taiwan to back-breaking labour work in Australian abattoirs is not easy for everyone. But for the young couple of Riza and Roy, they defy parental hopes for stability and embrace their new life in Australia.
Their journey has been a bumpy one. First landed on the southern continent in 2016 as backpackers, then 23-year-old Riza and her husband found themselves in Caboolture, Queensland, a place that wins the nickname of “Horror Hill” for squalid living conditions and poor wages on local farms amongst Taiwanese youngsters who seek higher wages and rich life experiences in Australia.
The pair didn’t have much of a choice but to accept local labour-hire agent’s offer to work on a strawberry farm. But the scheme, or scam rather, was all but well-paid jobs and opportunities to explore new life.
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, plus an extra $5 for transportation to and from the farm per day. But at the same time, work, which was paid by piece rate, was so scarce that during the entire day 50 backpackers must fight for strawberries that would be normally picked up by fewer than 20 people.
“He (the agent) was Taiwanese and he knew he could get away with exploiting Taiwanese backpackers,” said Riza who was shy in front of the camera. “It is a shame that people coming from the same place treat each other like that.”
According to the couple who both had experience in politics because of previous stint at the Mayor’s Office of Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, backpackers in Australia enjoy little workplace rights because of Australian immigration policies.
In their view, the 88 days of rural working requirement to secure their second year’s visa pushed the young foreign workers out of public’s eyes and forced them to relocate more often, thus making safeguarding their rights more difficult.
Riza and Roy quickly fled “Horror Hill” and after various farm gigs in multiple states they found work at an abattoir in Kyneton, 90 kilometres northwest of Melbourne, where pay was better but not entirely on par with the Award and conditions were poor.
“I was a boner, and my wife was doing packaging. Both of us were casuals,” noted Roy, a hurly but gentle man in his early 30s. “I was chopping off legs from as many 600 carcases per day. But the workshop was not designed to handle this level of capacity.”
“Working space in the packaging area was very tight, the boxes were stacked very high, and there was no floor boy to clean the greasy off,” said Riza. “Almost all the female workers were working on the conveyor belt packing meat that was just being boned. Lifting and moving 25 kilograms of meat are not easy for girls.”
“My family is not supportive of us working as labourers at all, but I don’t mind as long we are doing this together as husband and wife,” continued Riza.
It wasn’t before long for Riza and Roy to notice that local staff were paid much better. Roy was paid $24.8 per hour as casual boner, much lower than the Award rate of $34.8 per hour. Plus, according to Riza, the supervisors who were verbally abusive of backpackers dared not to do the same to the Australian workers.
“The majority of Aussie workers were members of the meat workers union,” noted Roy. “I wanted to join the union. Then 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.”
Both Roy and Riza later joined the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union, and MWC is now working with union to advance their underpayment claim.
The couple now work at an e-commerce warehouse where they are correctly paid, and Roy has started an automobile mechanic course at a TAFE in hope to master a trade and be able to settle down in this country where they spent the past three years.
“We don’t want to go back to Taiwan, because wages in Australia are much more decent. We did have some bad experience, but we will keep it in mind and look to the future,” said Riza.