Worked to death in ‘one of the richest countries in the world’
Worked to death in ‘one of the richest countries in the world’

The coroner described the story of Manjit Singh’s death as a 21st-century retelling of George Orwell’s How the poor die. Written in 1946 about his experience as a patient in a Parisian public hospital, Orwell’s essay tells of the indifference shown to the poor during their last moments in a world that owed them better: “This business of people just dying like animals, with nobody standing by, nobody interested, the death not even noticed till the morning. This happened more than once”.

Manjit Singh died in a public hospital in Sydney. “He was only 33 and had no close relatives with him, no wife or children to carry on after him”, the coroner said. “It is difficult to imagine what must have gone through his mind. He was lying in a hospital bed thousands of kilometres from home and his loving parents. His hopes … had turned to dust”.

But Manjit did not go unnoticed. The nurses and doctors at the Royal North Shore Hospital cared about him. It was they who ensured his story was told.

It was the Australian immigration system that met Manjit with indifference. “The hardship of Manjit Singh’s life, and the loneliness of his death, in one of the richest countries in the world is desolating”, the coroner concluded.

Manjit was a suspected victim of human trafficking. For two years, he worked 16-hour days seven days a week at North Indian Flavour on Oxford Street. He was paid just three lots of $300 in that time. Without changes to the immigration system, the coroner said, “it appears likely that cases like Manjit’s are and will remain the tip of the iceberg”. 

We have had a more recent glimpse of what lies beyond through a Four Corners investigation into the underpayment of wages at 7-Eleven stores. There now seem to be countless such examples, all telling the same story. Australia’s immigration laws expose 1.3 million people on work visas – or one in 10 workers – to acute forms of exploitation.

The employer who brought Manjit to Australia from India was one of the few people he knew here. He was promised accommodation but slept in a storeroom in which he was locked overnight. He bathed with a jug in a public toilet block. Manjit entered the country on a 457 visa.  

International students are the choice of 7-Eleven. Their visas restrict them to 20 hours’ work per week. At 7-Eleven they are frequently paid at this rate while working as many as 40 hours. Workers at these stores complain of attempts to limit their movement, including the withholding of passports and drivers’ licences.

Jessica Zaccaria, a 417 “working holiday” visa holder, recently complained to the Fair Work Commission about piece-rate payments at the fruit picking company Costa. “The work is difficult and physically demanding”, her witness statement read.  “To reach the speed of which work would need to be performed in order to earn a decent wage seemed impossible.”

Earlier this year complaints were made against a labour-hire contractor in Madura that was charging backpackers $450 to place them in farm jobs where they were paid as little as 60 cents an hour. It was the local council that complained, alleging that up to 32 people were being kept in one house, with 12 more sleeping in the garage. These people are lured into the country by a scheme that offers visa extensions for taking rural jobs. 

The Fair Work ombudsman has admitted that workers who complained in these situations were at risk of not having their visa extension signed off on by their employer, describing them as being “virtually bonded”.

Manjit endured his situation with a promise of permanent residency after two years. Six months after the promise proved to be a lie, he was admitted to hospital weighing 52kg and suffering malnutrition, anaemia and tuberculosis.

It was around this time that he applied for a protection visa as a victim of human trafficking. After about 16 months he was granted a criminal justice stay visa. Prior to this, for lengthy periods he had no visa, no right to work and no legal right to remain in the country. He lived hand to mouth.

When he was discharged from hospital after his first admission, his situation was so desperate that nursing staff took a collection for him, cooked him food and gave him clothes. Their attempts to find him charitable assistance were largely unsuccessful due to his immigration status.

This is the spectre of impoverishment that hangs over workers on visas, and it explains the low wages and dangerous conditions people will accept. A recent Fairfax survey of Mandarin-language websites found 80 percent of advertised jobs offered wages below the national minimum. Many were openly advertised as “black jobs”.  

Manjit Singh succumbed to tuberculosis in 2011. This is the disease once known as “consumption”. It should have been preventable, but was activated in Manjit by his long periods of malnourishment. It should have been treatable but Manjit seemed reluctant to seek treatment due to his status as an unlawful non-citizen at several points.

Charges against Manjit’s employer have been dropped. When Red Flag asked the Commonwealth Department of Public Prosecutions about his case, a spokesperson said that the charges were “discontinued on 2 December 2014 as the CDPP did not consider there to be a reasonable prospect of securing a conviction”.

For its part, the immigration department submitted to Manjit’s coronial investigation, which concluded in July, that the current system is “not broken, so there is no need to fix it”.

Just a few months later, the body of a 47-year-old man was found in a public toilet block in Mildura. He is believed to have overstayed a temporary visa. Police say he likely died because he was afraid to seek medical assistance.

“He would have been quite ill prior to his death and could have sought medical treatment, but obviously, due to his immigration status, he’s decided not to do that”, an officer told the ABC.

The coroner said Manjit’s was one of the saddest stories he had encountered. Unless something changes, there will be more like his.

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