Monday, 21 November 2011
Asian Women at Work
In my life I have attended many hundreds of annual general meetings of public, private and community organisations. On 6 November I attended another but certainly unique meeting, in my experience. Held in Bankstown, the Asian Women at Work organisation commenced its meeting with the women participating in group Tai Chi. As I said at the time, it relaxed me just watching them. It was a distinctive way to commence formal proceedings.
Asian Women at Work is a well-known network of Asian migrant women workers in low-paid employment that empowers, resources and assists women to stand up, speak out and take collective action to advocate for their rights and develop strategies that improve women's lives, end exploitation in the workplace and home, allow them to obtain secure employment and enable them to understand and contribute to Australian society. For over 15 years it has worked with Asian migrant women who are engaged in low-paid and uncertain employment, including restaurant workers, factory workers, cleaners, manufacturing workers, clothing factory workers and clothing outworkers. Many will be familiar with the FairWear and Clean Start campaigns that the members have been involved in.
Asian Women at Work has built an extensive membership network across Sydney with over 1,800 migrant women workers from a range of communities, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Khmer, Filipino, Indonesian, Lao and Korean. In addition to campaigning to ensure fairness in the workplace, the organisation provides, depending on funding, many activities and experiences designed to ensure that Asian women have the skills to participate knowledgeably in their workplaces as well as in the broader community. There are branches based in Auburn, Bankstown, Blacktown, Cabramatta and Hurstville in my own seat of Banks. Each presented a report of its activities and the management committee reported on the overall work of the organisation.
Apart from Tai Chi classes, branches are variously involved in English classes, including learning English through song; permaculture; community education through case studies; a Chinese children's painting exhibition; 'travel to learn' trips; leadership training; and a myriad other activities. The focus is always on providing the help, skills and confidence for Asian women to connect and become part of the broad Australian community.
I first became aware of Asian Women at Work through their participation in the Behind the Label campaign in providing assistance to outworkers and encouraging ethical and fair clothing trade employment within the retail clothing market. The workers were known to face incredible exploitation, with frequent noncompliance with award legislative conditions and occupational health and safety standards. Often they were paid as little as $2 an hour, had no job or income security and were responsible for the purchase and maintenance of their own equipment. They were susceptible to an increased risk of work injury and in many cases they had no workers compensation if they were injured. I am speaking of Australia in the 1980s and 1990s, not in some Dickensian England. These women, with many other activists, worked tirelessly to bring this shameful situation to light and to ensure that Asian women workers were aware of their rights at work. Their work continues today through the FairWear campaign and includes visits to outworkers' homes to provide assistance in setting up their workplace in terms of occupational health and safety outcomes.
I was particularly taken with the song of the organisation, We are Women, with the lyrics written by Lina Cabaero and sung to the music of Helen Reddy's I am Woman. I would like to put the first verse on the parliamentary record, as it reflects the essence of these remarkable women. It says:
We are women we are strong
We are here where we belong
What we learn today
Will go a long, long way
We say NO to unjust work practices, NO bullying in workplaces
MORE jobs and training
HEALTH at work needs protecting ...
This organisation is about empowering Asian women workers to represent and advocate for themselves. They have, however, found an advocate in me. I extend my warmest congratulations to Asian Women at Work.