Opinion piece for Sydney Morning Herald…
So here I am back in Australia, and I’m not only awaiting the second episode of An Australian Story with some trepidation, but Im also waiting to hear whether I am to be allowed to attend a round table meeting of the Migrant Workers’ Task Force, chaired by Allan Fels. I don’t have great hopes as I’ve already been turned down once.
This takes me back to a time long ago when as a struggling single parent I tried to attend a public meeting at the Festival Hall in London entitled, ‘the mothers that feminism forgot’. The rather posh lady on the door wouldn’t let me in because I had a toddler — baby Mia — in tow, and she’d forgotten to organise a crèche. She helpfully pointed out that she usually left her own children at home with their father. I’d been wanting to meet the speaker, Maureen Freely, for a while, since her father’s books had been valuable sources of information when I was researching Ancient Anatolia, and I was aware of her own prestige as an academic. She apologised profusely, but I doubt the irony escaped her.
20 years later, While I know the task force has a very real agenda based on industries other than agriculture, I do wonder whether it’s the Mia connection which is barring me from another political arena. As a bereaved mother I’m raw, and emotional, but I won’t be ignored, and I won’t allow anyone to ignore the facts being revealed to me on a daily basis. The casual, institutionalised rape (Queensland police say that is how coercive sex is framed legally) of migrant workers which seems to be accepted as a fringe benefit of the 88 days regional work programme for some employers of 417 visa holders (disparagingly termed ‘backpackers’) in the farming communities of the states of Victoria and Queensland; the degrading, dehumanising workplace bullying; the disregard for victims of workplace accidents, often the result of negligence or lack of training and induction; the insulting piece work rates which are taken back as payment for substandard and exorbitantly overpriced accommodation… the stories have been pouring in ever since Mia’s death, and each new horror affects me as if It were Mia who were the victim.
Maybe she would have been, who knows? Maybe when she arrived to a hostel full of disaffected workers who had been sat accumulating ‘debt’ for 3 months, and she was immediately prioritised for work, it was because some farmer had caught sight of her and decided she would be a good candidate for the sex for sign off scheme which is allegedly rampant across the Burdekin. Who knows? Who knows whether Ayad believed she was ‘his’ because she had been put into his room with the express intent of keeping him happy? I surmise, but I know I’ll never get answers so I may as well let go. Nothing will bring my beloved daughter, my one and only, back through that door. All I can do is hope that my efforts will bring other young men and women back through other parent’s doors, unscathed and full of stories of fun times and derring do.
But while I may feel my campaign fits squarely into the remit of the task force, I also feel sure my emotion and urgency is not the stuff of a bureaucratic think tank designed to show willing whilst battling those stakeholders who would happily while away the hours batting responsibility from federal to state and back again. Me? I’m too urgent, too raw, and once again, my daughter’s ‘presence’, manifested in my grief, is considered an incumbrance.
So where do I take all this, once the hurly burly of An Australian Story is done? I feel just now as if everyone is listening, but really, what Peter Dutton, Steven Ciobo, and Malcolm Turnbull want most is for me to go away, to quietly disappear from Australia and let them carry on with a system that delivers the goods, in terms of an agricultural workforce, cheap labour, and sex on demand in some fecund but otherwise quite dull areas.
And I know I am the mother that the Australian government would rather forget. But right now I am not only the recipient of stories from migrant workers of all nationalities but also of offers of help from so many quarters. Currently I am a nexus, a conduit for information, and bewildering as that may be at present, I will find a way to harness the one in the service of the other. I am sure there is an Australian solution to what has become an Australian problem, but meantime I’ll battle on, because that’s the only way for me personally to make any meaning out of a personal tragedy which could so easily have destroyed me.