Sun. May 26th, 2024

Fernanda was exploited while chasing her fashion dream in Australia. She’s not the only one

Alex Thompson By Alex Thompson May17,2024
  • The migrant and low-income population is more vulnerable to workplace exploitation.
  • According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, about 20 per cent of reports of workplace abuse come from migrant communities.
  • It is a ‘big illusion’ that reporting exploitation of your labour rights will affect your visa status, lawyer says.
Fernanda* (name withheld), a Brazilian student in Melbourne, arrived in Australia in 2022 with the dream of improving her English and finding professional opportunities.
With a degree in fashion design, she found a job at a wedding dress atelier as a seamstress and embroiderer.
But she said the joy of working in her field of expertise in Australia soon turned into a nightmare.

“We could only fill our water bottle once a day, and we could only go to the bathroom once in the morning and once in the afternoon because he [the business owner] had security cameras and checked how many times we left the place,” she told SBS Portuguese.

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Fernanda dreamed of working in fashion, but said she experienced workplace exploitation. Credit: Supplied

According to Fernanda, a typical work day also involved working in the same position standing or sitting on a steel bench for hours, and being warned every time she tried to stretch.

When she felt unwell, she said she was advised not to leave her station, so as not to delay the delivery of the dresses.
She claimed that she did not receive differentiated pay for overtime, nights and weekends, and was often threatened with “suspension” of work.

“He [the owner] once asked me to help finish a dress on the Saturday shift, which was initially supposed to finish at 4pm, but we finished at 7am the next day. No, he didn’t pay any overtime differential, just the normal rate for the week,” Fernanda said.

How to protect yourself from exploitation at work

Living abroad is a dream for many people, but a lack of information about working rights can prove a major obstacle.
In Australia, the migrant and low-income population is more vulnerable to being exploited in the workplace.
According to the, migrants make up about seven per cent of the Australian workforce, but accounted for 17 per cent of all formal disputes completed, about 20 per cent of anonymous reports received, and 15 per cent of all litigation initiated in 2022-23.
Immigrants walking for hope in better future

The migrant and low-income population is more vulnerable and susceptible to being exploited in the workplace Source: Moment RF / Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images

Valmor Gomes Morais is a lawyer who acts as a case mediator. He’s also a leader of the Brazilian community who has served as Honorary Consul of Brazil in Queensland.

Morais explained that getting in touch with the union relevant to your industry or occupation is the first step to obtaining information and support in the case of work abuse.

“I recommend the unions, and the local places of free legal support, which are the community legal centres. If it is confirmed that it is a case of exploitation, the advice is to report to Australian Fair Work, and in the case of physical or psychological injury at work, contact the work’s legal advisers,” he said.

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Valmor Gomes Morais is a lawyer who acts as a case mediator in Queensland. Credit: Supplied

Fernanda recalled that whenever she thought of complaining about her working conditions, she was afraid that her boss could, in some way, affect her visa status.

However, Morais emphasised that this is a common misconception among migrant workers.
“In fact, it is a big illusion not to request your rights due to any fear related to visa status. In Australia, immigrants have the same rights as locals. If in your workplace, the Australian employee earns more than you in the same role you are performing, you have the right to assert your rights.

“But unfortunately, many employers have the practice of exploiting immigrants, and this has been happening for many years with millions of people,” Morais said.

A male engineer holds a telephone at a construction site

Contacting union and local councils is the first step to getting information and support in the event of abuse at work, lawyer Valmor Gomes Morais said. Source: Moment RF / Longhua Liao/Getty Images

‘Finding courage’

Morais said financial needs also play an prominent role in many people accepting or living with mistreatment.
Watched by her boss, Fernanda said she unconsciously started to eat and drink less to avoid the need to leave her work station.
“My friends and flatmates started telling me that I was losing weight,” Fernanda said.

“And every time I called my mother, talking about work brought mixed feelings. It was the area [of work] I wanted, but I felt like I didn’t know how to sew anymore.”

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Fernanda said she only began to realise the seriousness of her situation after she worked 22 hours straight without extra pay. Credit: Supplied

Fernanda said that it took several months for her to realise the seriousness of her situation, after an episode where she was required to work 22 hours straight without extra pay.

The next day, she said her boss asked not to leave her work station because she had gone “to the bathroom a lot” during her previous shift.
“After that I became so upset and angry that I had the courage to tell him [the boss] that I was leaving the job. He asked me to calm down, said we could talk better later, but I said that it was my final decision. So, he told me to finish the shift and leave quickly. I couldn’t say goodbye properly to my colleagues,” she said.
Morais said he considers Fernanda’s experience to be a case of explicit exploitation.
“Many of her rights were violated in this situation – what we call ‘awards’, the collective contract between companies in that area of work, and what are the minimum conditions and remuneration that exist in that market.

“In her case, she has full right to report to Fair Work Australia and pursue her rights after that,” he said.

Various forms of exploitation

People can fall into a situation of work exploitation due to lack of information, Morais said, explaining that labour abuse goes beyond underpayment.

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Labour exploitation goes beyond underpayment.

He said “wage theft” can occur in several ways, and includes not only the practice of underpaying a salary or wages, but also other entitlements.

Among these, employers may commit wage theft by paying below the minimum hourly rate, only allowing unpaid breaks, refusing to grant leave, and not paying appropriate allowances as defined in the employee’s contract.

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Alex Thompson

By Alex Thompson

Alex is an award-winning journalist with a passion for investigative reporting. With over 15 years of experience in the field, Alex has covered a wide range of topics from politics to entertainment. Known for in-depth research and compelling storytelling, Alex's work has been featured in major news outlets around the world.

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2 thoughts on “Fernanda was exploited while chasing her fashion dream in Australia. She’s not the only one”
  1. It’s heartbreaking to hear about Fernanda’s experience of workplace exploitation in Australia. The fact that migrant communities are more vulnerable to such abuse is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. Fernanda’s story sheds light on the importance of protecting workers’ rights and ensuring fair treatment for all. We must take action to prevent such injustices from happening again.

  2. It’s truly disheartening to hear about Fernanda’s experience of workplace exploitation in Australia. As a fellow migrant myself, I understand the challenges that come with pursuing professional opportunities in a foreign land. It’s important for authorities to address these issues and protect the rights of all workers, regardless of their background. Fernanda’s bravery in speaking out should serve as a wake-up call for stricter regulations and enforcement against such labor abuses.

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