Tales of hardship from Down Under
Illegal Workers

No matter how many times the story is told, the conclusion remains the same

By LYDIA NATHAN / Pic By BLOOMBERG

What was perceived to be “the adventure of a lifetime” had turned out to be a string of misfortunes for quite a number of Malaysians who were merely seeking greener pastures.

No matter how many times the story is told, the conclusion remains the same. Gullible Malaysians are lured by the idea of going abroad with the opportunity to experience a different lifestyle and surroundings — and most importantly, to make a lot of money.

The scheme sounds pretty straight-forward too. Go to Australia, pick some fruits (or collect some eggs), enjoy the weather, take lots of glorious pictures to send home, and bank in fat paychecks.

Well, it is not as simple as that to a number of people who have been “burnt” by such schemes.

Still, that does not stop new hopefuls who don’t seem to mind all the horror stories that might have been shared by others before them.

As it is, statistics from Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection had shown that there were 62,900 unlawful non-citizens residing in Australia as at June 30, 2017, with Malaysians being the largest group of offenders.

According to reports, up to 9,610 Malaysians had overstayed their work or tourist visas between 2016 and 2017.

The huge number was followed by 6,500 Chinese nationals, 5,170 from the US and 3,700 British nationals, ahead of 2,780 Indonesians and 2,730 Indians.

The remaining amount of illegals were not identified.

Australia Immigration Minister Peter Dutton stated in a report by the Canberra Times that most people initially entered the country legally and later chose to overstay for many reasons.

Of the overstayers, 70% were on expired visitor visas; 15% on student visas; and 3% were on working holiday visas.

In August 2017, an operation called “Operation Bonasus” stopped 300 workers-to-be from entering Australia, claiming they were led to believe there were opportunities to work in farming, retail and hospitality industries.

The majority of them came from Asian countries — namely Malaysia, China and Indonesia — and were deported almost immediately after investigations.

The Malaysian Reserve (TMR) managed to talk to a couple of Malaysians who shared their experience as farm helpers in Australia.

Is the Grass Really Greener?

A former student of engineering at Curtin University in Perth, Malaysian-born Frank knew the risk he was taking when he overstayed his visa and has moved to the city of Fremantle to work on an egg farm.

“I know what could happen, I do it because the money is good and I am not able to find a job in my field. I am able to make up to A$100 per day, which is about RM314,” he told TMR.

It is truly hard labour, he said, as workers are expected to begin work at 5am every morning and rarely come back before 7pm.

Their duties include cleaning the barn, collecting the eggs and moving the chickens from one barn to another, according to what is required by the management.

Frank said that living conditions are dirty and overcrowded as well.

“We live in a dormitory-style room, six to eight people in a room, and it does get very cramped. But I suppose, if you want to work here, this is what you put up with,” he said.

Another student, Nimesh, who hails from Penang, said he has been going to the strawberry farm in the outskirts of Perth since 2014 during the summer break to work.

He uses a tourist visa to legally enter the country, but is aware that it is a serious breach of his visa.

“We wake up at 4.30am every day and pick strawberries and other fruits grown on the farm. Sometimes there are snakes and poisonous spiders, we are expected to wear thick boots just in case.

“I get paid about A$8 per hour, I know other places that pay more. But those places have been raided a few times by border security enforcers, so I don’t want to chance it,” he said.

Living Dangerously

Both Nimesh and Frank claimed that they barely have any rights at all, which seem to echo certain quarters’ sentiment that the issue is akin to “modern-day human trafficking”.

“Some workers here don’t speak English very well. When they don’t get paid on time or at correct rates, they have no one to turn to.

“They cannot even go to the police or consumer affairs because they are illegal,” Nimesh said, adding that they are often at the mercy of their employers.

He said they are paid daily and would need to go into town to purchase groceries and food for themselves.

“Where I live, there is a small Woolworths store, an Asian deli and a few small eateries. Often, we will buy cuts of meats and salads and make our own sandwiches,” Nimesh said.

The jobs are secured by third-party contractors, who often use social media as a platform to entice and promise the world to these youngsters looking to make a quick buck.

“I was told that I would be given a work visa by a friend in Malaysia. I just had to enter the country on a tourist visa and it’ll be processed by then.

“I was so excited at the prospect of working here. I had seen photos of the beaches, sun and people having fun. Obviously, my expectations were dashed when I saw where I would be living and working for the next three or four months,” Nimesh said.

The outskirts of Perth consist of smaller towns with limited access to shops and eateries, with temperatures often blazing hot or freezing cold during winter.

Employers are now getting more savvy at avoiding border security patrols, often finding ways or means of warning workers that are spread across the farms.

“We would often be cautioned with a whistleblowing sound. Once, the employers told us they would play a very specific song over the loudspeakers to warn us,” Frank said.

During raids, anyone found to be employing illegal workers could face a fine ranging up to A$210,000.

According to the legal workers’ guide, the prices are fined per employee and could include jail time too.

Workers who are caught will risk being blacklisted from entering the country again, as well as being charged a fine.

Meanwhile, Australian High Commissioner to Malaysia Rod Smith said that people need to be wary of their visa conditions and not fall into scams.

“We don’t want to see Malaysians exploited by unscrupulous agents. The Australian government is urging all travellers to ensure they understand what their visa allows them to do while in Australia,” he said in a statement.

The local Department of Home Affairs said that the Australian Border Force is working closely with the government of Malaysia to disrupt illegal labour hire syndicates and to stop individuals before they come to Australia, not tolerating any attempts to exploit its visa programmes.