Migrant women workers in Australia fight back against exploitation


Imagine working through the night to produce a complex and beautiful piece of clothing for as little as AUD$5 (US$3.70) an hour, even though it will retail for more than AUD$600 (US$440). This is just one example of the kind of exploitation taking place in Australia.

Asian Women at Work (AWAW), backed by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), is helping to fight the exploitation of thousands of migrant workers employed in the clothes industry, food courts, cafes, factories, building sites, farms, hairdressers and retail.

Many migrants arrive in Australia alone, frightened and with poor English skills, so they accept low wages because they feel they have no power.

“We believe in the dignity of work and the right for everyone to have a job,” says AWAW coordinator Lina Cabaero. “But many migrant women don’t enjoy these simple dignities.”

Her organisation is helping to change this by supporting migrant women in low-paid and insecure employment. Set up with support from the ACTU, AWAW helps to combat the bullying and exploitation experienced by many of these women in the workplace.

“We offer extensive outreach services to women during evening sessions and on weekends to increase our accessibility,” says Cabaero, a longtime activist who moved to Australia from the Philippines 10 years ago. AWAW is setting up a support network of migrant women workers based around local branches.

“We’re building on the strengths and responding to the needs of these women and their families,” says Cabaero. “While a common element is their working situation, we also help with the full range of issues in their lives.”


Migrant stories

This support is invaluable to workers such as Coco, a young single mother and clothing worker from China, whose experience is typical. “I work very hard — I have no weekends and no holidays,” she says. “I have never got money from social security and have never had the chance to go to school to learn English.”

Another woman, Thu, from Vietnam and in her forties, is an aged care worker who is grateful for her job, but scared of her employer. “My boss is a good person but she is bossy to all the workers. She shouted at me to learn English because she can’t understand me.”

The system can lead to severe exploitation. “The stories you hear you sometimes wouldn’t believe could happen in Australia,” says Cabaero. “Often people work through the night for as little as AUD$5 an hour.”

Although there is little official detail on how many temporary foreign workers and students are employed in Australia, let alone how many are being illegally underpaid, many Mandarin-language websites advertise jobs for as little as AUD$8 (US$5.90) to AUD$13 (US$9.60) an hour — significantly below Australia’s legal minimum wage of AUD$17.29 (US$12.79) an hour.

“Many migrant women are frightened, and they’re so grateful to be here. They’re worried about speaking up for basic rights at work,” says Cabaero.

Encouraging the women to join their union and pay their dues can be tough, she admits.


This article was first published on the Australian-based publication Working Life