HONG KONG: A Malaysian journalist who went undercover to expose exploitation in Australia’s fruit picking industry said workers were “brainwashed” with religion and trapped in debt to keep them on farms.
Saiful Hasam, a reporter with a Malay daily, gave evidence to a modern slavery inquiry on last week, speaking of the “thousand sad stories” he heard during his two weeks at a fruit farm in Swan Hill, in northern Victoria.
Fruit pickers, often working illegally, were lured to Australia with promises of high incomes, Saiful said. When they arrived, they were paid a pittance, kept in overcrowded homes with exorbitant rent and effectively trapped in debt bondage.
Saiful warned the inquiry the exploitation was still occurring on a significant scale.
Saiful arrived in Australia last year, posing as a fruit picker who was prepared to work illegally.
He was paid A$110 for 24 hours’ work over four days. About A$80 went to pay rent in a small home he shared with 11 other workers, mostly from Malaysia. He was short-changed A$10 by his contractor, leaving him with just A$20.
“The story is basically the same, the sad story,” Saiful said.
“A thousand sad stories, they are basically the same story. They are struggling. For the newbies, they are struggling and keep thinking: ‘Today, I have to settle how many trees just to pay rent. After finishing that part, then we are struggling to collect enough money for food’.
“Sometimes, based on my experience, it’s just enough for food and rent… This is grossly unfair for the workers, because they are very hard-working.”
Saiful helped Fairfax Media in its exposé of the industry last year, which built momentum for the introduction of a modern slavery act in Australia.
An inquiry is examining how such legislation would operate and Saiful travelled from Malaysia to give evidence last week.
Saiful was asked whether the workers raised concerns about their conditions with their employers.
“Based on my observations, they are being brainwashed using religion,” Saiful said.
“The house leader always says: ‘OK, please be patient, this is your test, coming to Australia, and one fine day you will get enough money. This is normal for everybody, and even me myself went through this process.’”
The inquiry’s interim report advocated the creation of a modern slavery act and recommended the creation of an independent anti-slavery commissioner, who would have the power to “consult, advise, report on and make recommendations”. (CONTINUED)
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