I am the mother that the Australian government would rather forget.
My daughter Mia was killed in a stabbing attack almost a year ago in a backpacker hostel in far north Queensland, while she was completing her 88 days work in order to obtain a visa to stay in Australia. Since then, I have undertaken my own journey in Australia, not just to mourn my daughter but to find out why she died and what can be done to make young travellers like her safer.
As told across the two latest episodes of the ABC’s Australian Story, I am campaigning for better regulation of the 88 days of work in regional areas, which is required of 417 and 462 visa holders in order to obtain a second year extension of their visa
I am aware that my journey makes painful viewing, and I have warned friends and relations back home that they may want to avoid watching the second episode of Australian Story on Monday night, as it is harrowing. In truth, much as I always intended to visit that hostel for my own sake, to put my imagination to bed (and because I felt I owed it to Mia to find out as much as I could about that night), I would rather have made the journey to Home Hill in private.
However, I was aware that all media attention would pivot around that moment. I also knew that, powerful as the story is, it could help to focus attention on the plight of other migrant workers, who are often put in danger by this unregulated and frankly ill-conceived programme.
As I wait for the program to go to air, I am also waiting to hear whether I will be allowed to attend a round table meeting of the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce, chaired by Allan Fels. I don’t have great hopes as I’ve already been turned down once.
I would like to put 417 and 462 visa holders on the taskforce agenda so the needs of these young travellers can be placed under the auspices of that body. I feel a thorough examination of the complex web of employers, hostel owners and contractors needs unpicking and regulating. Enforcement is key, as are regular unannounced inspections and punitive sentencing for transgressors.
People trafficking in Britain can carry a life sentence, whereas transgressors in Australia are unlucky if they are fined $25,000 for malpractice that can involve the destruction of a young person’s life. (A fine of these dimensions can easily be factored in to annual costs.)
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 viewed as fringe benefits of the 88 days regional work programme by some employers of 417 visa holders (disparagingly termed “backpackers”) in the farming communities 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 piecework rates that are taken back as payment for substandard and exorbitantly overpriced accommodation.
I won’t be ignored, and I won’t allow anyone to ignore the facts being revealed to me on a daily basis.
The stories have been pouring in since Mia’s death, and each new horror affects me as if it were Mia who were the victim.
And maybe she would have been, who knows? Maybe when she arrived to a hostel full of disaffected workers who had sat accumulating “debt” for three 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 that is allegedly rampant across the Burdekin.
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 parents’ 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 while 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 my daughter’s “presence”, manifested in my grief, is considered an incumbrance.
So where do I take all this, once the hurly burly of Australian Story is done? I feel just now as if everyone is listening, but really, what the political leaders and ministers I’ve reached out to 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.
Malcolm Turnbull did write to me, but I felt his attitude was very much one of, “I’ve given a wad to the Fair Work Ombudsman, what more could you possibly want?”
I replied to his letter at length, and have received no response from him, and no response to my request for a meeting with Peter Dutton or Steven Ciobo.
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. In the meantime I’ll battle on, because it is a way for me to make meaning out of a personal tragedy that could so easily have destroyed me.