Thursday, 23 October 2008
Deakin Electorate: Asian Women at Work Action Group
Today in the adjournment debate I would like to inform the House that on Tuesday, 21 October I had the privilege of meeting with the Asian Women at Work Action Group. Debbie Carstens, the development officer, and eight other women came to talk to me about their own personal issues in the workplace and those of the many coworkers of theirs who have suffered similar mistreatment.
The group provides critical outreach services for Asian women working in some of Australia’s key service delivery industries, including clothing, cleaning, restaurants, metalwork, furniture, food, aged care, packing, meat work and, of course, the textile industry. The group is predominantly comprised of Asian women who work tirelessly to both empower and support fellow Asian women workers, many of whom are migrants and are very new to Australian society. They told me that since the introduction of Work Choices their voice and their rights in the workplace had been severely reduced and, in some cases, the employment relationship was on the level of a master-servant relationship. The group provides English classes, outreach services that will actively seek Asian women out in their places of work, along with regular support meetings, seminars and social activities to combat social alienation. A very wide range of referral and casework activity is also offered to help Asian working women through matters of workers compensation, domestic violence, workplace issues and family law issues, just to name a few.
Speaking to the action group, I learned first-hand of the plight of so many of the women they help. These are often some of the most vulnerable women in the workforce, who face many challenges every day just in going to work and trying to earn a dollar to make a living. They commonly battle long-term poverty, along with, especially, language barriers, social alienation and stigmatisation. Many battle forms of physical and mental abuse, leading to depression. The group was particularly concerned that migrant workers should be fully informed of their workplace rights and of the remedies available when things are not right. In many cases, a language problem hinders their ability to be informed. Not only do many of these workers not have English as a first language; many of them do not speak English at all. Despite urgently needing help, many simply do not know where to go for it. Many may simply be too scared to go to their boss, for any issue, through fear of losing their job. So, for a new immigrant, simply knowing where to go to access government and community support is nigh on impossible. For some, the language barrier is just too high.
All of this all adds up to an enormous lack of negotiating power when chasing employment and securing basic workers rights when in employment. Many of these poor women often experience significant forms of injustice and exploitation in the workplace, like being forced to work horrendously long and punishing hours in very physically demanding, repetitive jobs. They work extremely long days, with little respite and very little pay for their long hours. Many of us know these workplaces as ‘sweatshops’ and some of us call their employees ‘outworkers’. Many of these workplaces are unregulated, extremely dangerous environments where the incidence of injury is extremely high. In many cases, it is outright criminal.
The group has a firm commitment to standing up for the rights of these women so that they are given a fairer go in Australian society and are able to gain access to information, resources, relationships and improved self-confidence. Many new migrant women, often here in search of a better life and to gain access to the fundamental things in life—a job, economic security and inclusion in their new society—find it a very lonely, daunting and stressful experience.
The group presented me with an extremely moving publication titled 20 Women, 20 Stories, which documents the real-life stories of 20 such women, each dealing with a different challenge in their workplace. The book gives Asian working women a new voice to government and our community at large that they are skilled and dedicated workers who are treated as second-class citizens and who deserve better. In each of these 20 scenarios, the group offers a response, a solution, that gets to the heart of an effective resolution of that particular issue. All 20 stories happened to real working women and carry 20 tales for other women to relate to. They book highlights their plight and offers critical lessons to other working women.