Sharmini’s Story – United Workers Union

Sharmini’s Story

My name is Sharmini and I’m from Malaysia.

I’ve been here for a few years now, working on Australian farms.

I’d say I’m a happy-go-lucky person. I love to read and I love to cook.

I miss the satays of home – the penang curries (heaven sent!), the Chinese hawker foods, nasi kandar…

I also enjoy word puzzles.

I’ve been in Australia for five years now.

For all that time I’ve only seen my family via video chat.

As a family person, the distance has been really, very hard.

I love travelling with my family.

I’ve taken some beautiful trips with them.

Being Tamil in Malaysia isn’t easy when it comes to work.  It can be difficult to have a successful career, no matter how hard you try, or how talented you are.

So when a friend told me about Australia, it sounded like a dream. You could earn a fair wage, and not face the same discrimination.

Flying to Australia, I felt a mixture of hope and excitement.

I didn’t realise how different the reality would be.

Farm work is hard. But that isn’t what shocked me.

What shocked me was the exploitation. The cash contractors and farmers who take advantage of migrant workers, particularly undocumented workers.

On some farms, workers can be sent into the field when it is over 40ºC.

In that temperature you’re lifting heavy loads, and sometimes there’s no toilet.

No water.

In these instances, if you are undocumented, it doesn’t feel safe to speak up.

And when you are paid $10 an hour, you just don’t know what to do.

That was not what I expected Australia to be.

At the beginning of my time in Australia I had savings.

But after a few months I found myself cheated out of my money, with no papers.

I had become undocumented.

I had gone to my contractor and asked, “Do you know how I can sustain my work rights here?” They said to go to this lawyer, who would fix all my problems.

This ‘lawyer’ was very positive, telling me, “Oh, this is very simple, don’t worry. You can stay in Australia for another five years. Just pay me $2000 and everything is done.”

After I submitted all my documents, I tried to call him. He didn’t answer – he disappeared entirely.

Gone with $2,000.

This happened to me twice more, with two different supposed lawyers. The third took the last of my savings – $3,500.

All I got in return was a letter saying, “I’m sorry I can’t fix your case, Immigration has rejected it. I tried my level best, I paid an immigration lawyer, but no luck. And no, I can’t refund you.” 

So, I was really very scared, as I had been undocumented for eight months then.

It’s difficult to describe how it feels when you don’t have the right papers or information.

You never know when Immigration might come knocking.

This makes it harder to stand up for yourself at work. Contractors steal your wages and force you to accept poor working and living conditions. 

They know you’re afraid.

In the past I’ve been paid well below the legal wage.

With low wages and no papers, many farm workers have no other option but to live in crowded accommodation. Accommodation owned by the contractors.

In one place I lived, it was very overcrowded – fourteen to fifteen people living there, yet there was only one shower.

This shower room didn’t have a lock on it.

One of the women went to shower and she was spied on by the men.

They filmed her.

From then on all of us women would go to the bathroom together. When one of us would shower, the others would guard the door.

When you don’t have work rights, you always have these questions in the back of your mind.

What will happen if Immigration stops me? What will they do to me?

We were in the van once, going to work, when the driver stopped suddenly.

He made us get out and hide in the bushes.

And that kind of trauma stays with you.

Even now I don’t go and get my own groceries. Always my friends have to do that for me.

And when I hear sirens, my heart still races.

My brother says, “You have work rights, you have everything now, why are you still scared of the sirens man?”

When I was finally put in contact with a real immigration lawyer, I got my work rights within a couple of months.

It was a long hard road to get there though. So that’s why I’m involved in the visa amnesty campaign.

As a union member I have won things worth more than money. Like respect.

I never believed that I should be treated with less respect than someone who was born here or someone who has a lot of formal education.

Even though I now have work rights, I’m still campaigning for visa amnesty.

Everyone deserves to be respected.

Visa amnesty will mean all farm workers can get safer accommodation. They will be able to fight for their rights, for respect, without contractors threatening them with Immigration.

Please stand with us – sign our petition in support of our visa amnesty campaign.

Supporter List for Visa Amnesty