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Nationality does not protect from exploitation by labour brokers

HONG KONG (SE): Something seems out of sync watching a young man from Hong Kong crying on Australian television as he tells the story of how he had been trafficked to labour on a Queensland plantation.

The young man paid money to a labour broker to take advantage of the short term employment visa programme the Australian government offers to young people from overseas to work in the farming, food packaging and construction sectors, among others.

Australian government conditions stipulate that the foreign workers are to be paid at the same rate as local labour and attributed the same working conditions and benefits.

Although there have been some high profile cases in recent years of companies being forced to pay millions of dollars in back wages to construction workers, scrutiny of the brokerage industry remains scant and sporadic.

A documentary produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation screened on its Four Corners programme on May 4, shows young foreigners, mostly from Asia, working long hours on Queensland farms and receiving only a small percentage of their contracted wage.

Land owners interviewed pointed out that they do not know how much the workers are being paid, as they do not employ them, the broker does.

One commented, “All I know is that I pay the broker the proper rate for the hours his workers put in on my property. What he does with it I have no way of finding out.”

Secrecy becomes possible as the farms are in remote areas and the broker often rents a house in an unpopulated area. Workers are delivered to the house late at night and picked up early in the morning, so they never meet anyone.

Because many do not speak English effectively, they are not really aware of their circumstances nor can they ask questions. Brokers often deliberately recruit non-English speakers.

The young man from Hong Kong regretted that he could not ask his family to send the money to bring him home, as they would not have been able to afford it and he could not leave until he had enough to pay back what he borrowed to pay the broker for the job.

However, another person from Hong Kong fared a little better.

She told the Sunday Examiner that she also worked on a farm in Queensland. “The work was all right,” she said. “It was hard on my body, as I am a city girl, but I got stronger and became used to it.”

However, she added that she got paid only about one-quarter of the rate she had been promised in her contract by the broker. 

She said that large amounts were seemingly deducted from her salary for accommodation and transport to and from to farm, as well as for the scant meals of noodles, rice and not much else she received. Eventually, she left the job and went to Brisbane where she worked in a Chinese restaurant run by a relative.

“They did not pay me much either,” she admitted, “but they were kind to me and the work was not so taxing. I was able to save enough money to fly home.”

While some young people join the Australian programme as an adventure, others come from quite poor circumstances and see it as a chance to put some money together to help them build a future.

But placing yourself in the hands of a labour broker can be a bit of a lottery. While some are honest and pay the proper wages, it is often the luck of the draw and it is too late to go back if a losing ticket comes out of the barrel.

While the physical abuse endured by the likes of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih in Hong Kong were not reported by people interviewed on Four Corners, an English woman did say that the brokers do like to brush a bit too close to certain parts of the women’s bodies.

Other young women also reported various forms of physical, psychological and sexual abuse.

In both Australia and Hong Kong, legislation regarding migrant work is comprehensive, but neither government seems to be interested in policing it properly.

However, in most of Asia, the situation of migrant workers can be a lot worse. Father Peter O’Neill, from the Hope Workers Centre in Taiwan, told the Sunday Examiner, “Most labour laws in Asian receiving countries only incidentally cover migrant workers.”

He explained that what laws do exist are usually related to visa control, treating workers as a national security matter or economic competition.

He pinpoints 1989 as the beginning point of corruption in the migrant labour industry, as employers began to use brokers on a large scale, initially in Thailand, instead of the old direct hire system.

“Brokers began selling their migrant quotas to the highest bidder,” he said.

The Australian priest said that since that time governments by and large have shown little interest in regulating the industry and migrant workers have become a sponge that can be squeezed for quick profits.

“It is the migrant workers who end up paying this black money through exorbitant placement and broker fees,” he pointed out.

He explained that this leads to greater numbers trying to avoid the exploitation by working without documents, and this too is often ignored by governments.

He cited the numbers of migrant workers with irregular status as skyrocketing in Taiwan by 200 per cent in the six years up to 2010, but said that the Council of Labour Affairs never conducted any research to find out why.

However, he said that surveys conducted by the Hope Workers Centre discovered that 35 per cent of those interviewed entered the irregular market because forced deductions from their salaries left them with too little take-home pay.

He noted that migrants from countries whose governments have ratified the most oppressive conditions for their workers abroad, are the most likely to join this market.

But despite the ever-growing list of horrific incidents surrounding migrant labour in Asia and elsewhere, volunteers keep putting their hands up.

UCAN reported Vincent Ignatius Suri, a former broker in Indonesia who became an anti-trafficking advocate, as saying that the brokers play off the financial desperation of families and target children—the younger the better.

Suri said he would seduce the victims through their families, paying a finder’s fee.

But anti-trafficking advocates say that too many people, as well as the Church as an institution, do not see human trafficking as the critical issue that it is, and so the lure of the brokers is hard to resist for the impoverished.

Father O’Neill concluded that because of the nature of the industry and the debts that many workers incur to take up jobs in foreign countries, fear is the key to their continued oppression.

“Many workers are afraid of having any form of conflict with their employer,” he said, consequently, they seldom complain about abuse. So the rot continues.