Type
Fiction
Category
Fair Australia Prize

FAP winner – Migrant Worker: While the iron is hot

Shahinaz felt tired. She always felt tired. She’d toiled all day every day for weeks, months. Today, the manager had told her there were deductions to be taken out of her pay, so she wouldn’t get all the money she had counted on to help her family. Her father was sick and needed medicine. Her mother needed to buy school uniforms for Shahinaz’s sisters and brothers, so they could go to school. And now she wouldn’t have enough.

Shahi, as her friends called her, didn’t want to just accept what the bosses said. But what can I do? Her thought continued, That won’t just hurt me and my family, that will hurt all of us. With that in mind, she decided to ask her friend Nilufer her opinion.

When Shahinaz asked her friend about the deductions, the more worldy wise Nilufer said, ‘Yeah, it sucks. It’s totally not fair. They’re just ripping us off.’

‘I get that, Nilu, but what can we do?’

‘We could ask the rest to go on strike with us,’ Nilufer replied.

‘Are there enough? I mean, how many are there? And would they strike with us? And wouldn’t the company fire us?’

‘I don’t know, Shahi, but there’s a lot of us.’

The next morning, on their grudgingly vouchsafed break, Shahinaz found herself sitting beside her older friend Hiranur and mentioned her conversation with Nilufer, although without mentioning Nilufer by name. ‘Yeah, they’re ripping us off,’ Hiranur said, ‘and, yeah, it sucks. We need a union.’

‘But they told us we’re not allowed to join a union. Remember? They said they would dismiss all of us, if we joined a union.’

‘Yeah,’ Hiranur said. ‘That sucks, too.’

Their friend Kadri leaned across Hiranur and said, ‘That’s against the law. They can’t tell us we can’t join a union. It’s illegal. They could get fined thousands. They can’t fire someone for joining a union.’

Hiranur patted Kadri’s shoulder and said, ‘They’ve done it before. They always get away with it.’

‘But how can they,’ Shahinaz asked. ‘Why don’t they get arrested or something?’

‘Yeah, why don’t they?’ Kadri asked. ‘I hear they’ve done it five or six times, so how do they get away with it?’

‘Last couple of times,’ Hiranur said, ‘Labour was in government, so they were more careful. They didn’t fire anyone – they just wound up the company and started over with a new one. Of course they didn’t hire anyone who had joined the union. Under Howard and before, they pretty much did whatever they wanted. Prob’ly be the same with that hefir who’s in there now.’

The breaks never lasted long enough for an extended conversation, so the three friends went back to work with no solution to their problem. They didn’t forget, however, and resumed their unavoidably fragmented discussion the next day at every opportunity. In the midst of their lunchtime colloquy, someone asked, ‘What happened to Feray and Elnara?’

‘They got the sack,’ someone else replied.

‘For what?’

‘For speaking Türkçe in the lunchroom,’ Shahinaz said, so quietly her friends had to strain to hear her.

Three of them began to speak at once, then stopped and looked over their shoulders. Five of them looked at each other, then around the room again. ‘So maybe it isn’t safe to talk here,’ Nilufer said, looking frightened.

Everyone else nodded, but no-one spoke. Their not-very-free time having elapsed, they all went back to their jobs and worked through to the end of another long, wearying day. They spoke little as they parted, each of them offering some variant of ‘Yarın görüsmek üzere,’ ‘See you tomorrow.’ The next day, when they conversed at all, they did so in whispers. They sat together as usual at lunch but spoke little and very quietly.

The main topic of conversation was the news that Hiranur had been assaulted and badly beaten on her way home the previous evening, news that naturally distressed all of them. Speaking quietly and cautiously, they discussed the attack on their friend.

‘She’s an old lady, and she doesn’t have any money to steal, so why would anybody beat her up?’

With as much emotion but at a lower volume, Shahinaz asked, ‘Is she OK?’

‘I haven’t seen her,’ Nilufer said, ‘but Ottmar did. He says she looks awful but will prob’ly be OK. Broken nose, but otherwise no broken bones or serious injuries. He thinks she’ll be back at work next week, if they don’t sack her.’

‘For what!?’

‘For missing work.’

‘But she’s in hospital!’

That conversation continued as one would expect and used up most of the lunch break. All felt uncomfortable about their situation. With the others leaning their heads close to hear, Kadri said, ‘We must speak to some union people.’

The others all nodded, and Meltem said, ‘How can we do that without losing our jobs? And is there even a union we could join?’

‘I’ve done some digging,’ Shahinaz told her workmates. ‘We need the Missos, but United Voice sort of absorbed them and isn’t the same. They cover school cleaners, but not us. I wonder if we could join the Australian Services Union or the AWU or AST.’

‘What are they?’ several whispered.

‘Other unions,’ Kadri said, barely loud enough for her friends to hear. ‘Any would be better than what we have now.’

‘Maybe we could talk with all of them,’ Nilufer whispered.

One of the managers walked into the lunchroom, looking straight at them. They all got up and returned to work, even though they officially had five more minutes of their lunch break left. The next day, one of the managers stood inside the door of the lunchroom at the beginning of the break, so the whole group told loud, silly stories until he left. They then bent their heads together, and Kadri said, ‘I phoned the people at that fourth one, Australians Standing Together, the others don’t cover cleaners in our situation. AST would be happy to meet with us, whenever we say. They even said they could come in and talk to us at work, but I explained that might get us all fired. They understood and said just tell them a time and place and they’ll be there.’

‘Cecil’s just outside the door,’ Lalam said in an urgent whisper, so they all sat back and told jokes for the last few minutes of their abbreviated break.

The next day’s lunch followed the same pattern. As soon as all the supervisory personnel left the room, the group leaned their heads together.

‘Maybe we should meet in a coffee shop for a few minutes after work,’ Shahinaz suggested.

‘My husband won’t like it, but, yes, maybe we should,’ Nilufer agreed.

Almost immediately, three managers walked into the lunchroom, always a cause for suspicion since they didn’t eat there. Lalam had seen them coming and warned the group, so the six women sat telling slightly risque jokes by the time the men entered the room. In the short moment after the men left, the women arranged to meet at the Istanbul in Parra café after work the next day.

Only slightly less nervous at the café than in the lunchroom, six women spoke in hushed tones about becoming members of a union. They discussed half a dozen scenarios, almost all of which looked ugly, but agreed that they needed at least to meet the union people and talk about the situation. The group agreed that having union personnel show up at their workplace would only lead to disaster. They had pushed their chairs back and begun to stand, when Shahinaz said, ‘Maybe we could get some union people to meet us here.’

The entire group sat back down and very quietly discussed when they could all meet. Lacking specific information about various personal obligations, they decided to meet at Armani, just down the street, the following day right after work, to finalise their plans.

They found they could barely afford even the coffee at the Armani restaurant but agreed they needed to remain fluid in their arrangements. ‘We don’t want to be a stationary target,’ Nilufer said, as they arranged to return to Istanbul in Parra two days later.

All welcomed Hiranur back to work the next day, and each warned her sotto voce not to discuss anything controversial where she might be overheard. At lunch, they talked, loudly, about husbands and children and in-laws and other non-threatening topics and very quietly told Hiranur of their planned rendezvous at Istanbul in Parra the following day. Seven gathered there right after work, and Shahinaz reported that she had arranged for AST organisers to meet with them the following Tuesday. All headed home in better spirits but only a little less nervous.

The rest of the week passed without incident. Monday’s breaks contained few conspiratorial whispers but a good deal of boisterous conversation and banter. Two union representatives arrived at Istanbul in Parra the next evening. Seven cleaning workers attended the gathering, although many more had expressed interest in joining a union. Shahinaz, Nilufer, Hiranur, and Kadri had reached a quick and quiet decision on Monday. They agreed that prudence dictated limiting numbers present at their initial meetings with union representatives or any other outsiders. As a result, a total of nine participated in that first discussion.

 

On the Thursday evening, Nurgul and Pinar joined the original seven along with Demir and Metin, the only two males so far involved. The group discussed the earlier meeting held with the union representatives and the actions those union people had suggested. The assemblage decided to get as many of their fellow workers as possible to evening meetings in the next week and discuss the suggestions among the whole group. Having accomplished that much, a larger group met with two union representatives at Valentino’s in Guildford West the following week.

The union people described the Fair Work Act and answered questions about the law, then one of them held up a sheet and told the group, ‘This is from section 484 of the Fair Work Act. It is the law.’ She then read aloud from the sheet for those seated where they were unable to read or see it. ‘A permit holder may enter premises for the purposes of holding discussions with one or more employees … whose industrial interests the permit holder’s organisation is entitled to represent.’

‘But if they see us talking to you, we’ll get fired,’ Pinar said.

‘That’s against the law,’ Audrey, the woman from the union, replied, ‘but, yes, I understand your concern.’ ‘And,’ she added, ‘the law goes on to say, we can only talk with workers ‘who wish to participate in those discussions.’’

‘But if we say we want to, we’ll be fired,’ Lalam pointed out.

‘Yes, I get that. If you really want to join the union–’

Several voices muttered, ‘Evet!’, ‘Olur!’, and ‘Yapariz!

‘ – then we’ll just have to sign you up off-site, here or somewhere else not on their premises.’

‘But as soon as you tell them you’re representing us,’ Hiranur said, ‘they’ll fire us.’

‘That is strictly against the law, and we have some really good lawyers to make sure they can’t do that.’

The following Monday, the others learned that Lalam’s house had burnt to the ground on the weekend. They closed ranks around Lalam, who experienced some difficulty getting through her shift, shielded her from the management people, and supported her through that day and the rest of the week. They learned from her that her husband had been away and she had barely been able to get her children out of the house before it began collapsing.

The clandestine activist group had adopted a routine of meeting at various cafés on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but whispered arrangements found them at the Honey Persian Restaurant that Monday after work. In addition to the eleven who attended the previous Thursday, Safiye and her boyfriend Bechir joined the group along with their friend Halime. For the benefit of the various newcomers, the original core group explained about Feray and Elnara, about Hiranur, and about the fire. Lalam reported that the inspector from Fire and Rescue NSW told her that someone started the fire deliberately. ‘He said they used what he called “an accelerant,”’ she told the group.

‘Which means what?’ Metin asked.

‘Which means someone poured petrol all around the house and then torched it off,’ Hiranur explained.

That revelation launched an intense discussion that lasted until Bechir said, ‘If they’re going to get nasty, we might just have to get nasty, too.’

Karawan!’ Nilufer said, making a sign with her hands to ward off the evil eye.

 Shahinaz, Hiranur, and Nilufer argued strenuously that getting union representation for all the employees meant much more than simple vengeance. Metin and Bechir glanced at each other and nodded but said nothing.

Frightened but determined to fight on, Shahinaz, Nilufer, Hiranur, Kadri, and their workmates continued meeting as secretly as they could with an ever-expanding group and meeting with the union’s representatives as often as possible. One evening right after work, at Istanbul in Parra, the four core agitators and two others noticed three suspicious looking men conservatively dressed in black suits and two of the three wearing sunglasses the evening did not require.

Kadri spoke first. ‘Those erkekler look like M.I.T.’

‘Not here in Australia, surely,’ Shahinaz said.

‘Well, look at them, Shahi,’ Kadri replied, as Haranur and Nilufer nodded.

Shahinaz did look, then said, ‘I’ll be right back,’ and pushed her chair back, stood, and walked out the restaurant’s front door. She strolled back and forth on the footpath for a few minutes out of sight of the restaurant’s windows and intercepted the two union representatives. When Shahinaz explained the danger, the union reps understood.

Audrey said, ‘We’ll just walk in and act like we don’t know you. What do these blokes look like?’

‘Oh, they’re easy to spot,’ Shahinaz said. ‘They look like mafia hit men – all of ’em in black suits. You’ll spot ’em straightaway.’ She hurried back to her table and instructed everyone present to act as if they’d never seen the union people before.

With utmost caution, Shahinaz and her workmates watched the union people enter the restaurant, look around, and saunter out again. After a cup of coffee each and a hushed agreement to meet at a different spot in two days, the group broke up and went home. At lunchtime the next day, Shahi left work and rang AST. When she reached Audrey, the union woman said, ‘We’ve learned a lot about those three gentlemen. You were right: they’re hostile and probably dangerous. Do know of something called Milli Istihbarat Teskilati?’

M.I.T.!’ Shahinaz exclaimed. ‘Yes, but – ’

‘One of them is associated with that organisation, and the others have some connection to a group called the Grey Wolves.’

‘The ulkucu,’ Shahi said, ‘here in Sydney.’

‘I’m afraid so,’ the other woman replied. ‘We know some people who can keep an eye on ’em, but be careful.’

The two arranged a meeting at the Sahara restaurant across from the Parramatta railway station for the next Tuesday. ‘If we see those haydut,’ Shahi said, ‘we’ll just leave, and I’ll ring you the next day.’

Events in wealthy North Shore communities seemed as foreign to Shahi and Nilufer and their friends as events in Istanbul, more foreign to some of the recent arrivals. Almost all of them arrived at work on Monday unaware that a house in Vaucluse had burnt down over the weekend. At lunch, those who hadn’t already heard learned that the house belonged to Cecil, one of their arrogant bosses. Nobody remarked on the absence of Shahinaz, who had again hurried out to ring the union office.

‘We didn’t do that,’ the union woman said. ‘There’s no way we would do anyth – ’

‘I know, I know,’ Shahi said.

‘Do you know who – wait! don’t answer that. You don’t know and I don’t know. Let’s leave it at that.’

They did, and went on to discuss other news and plans and meeting arrangements. Two weeks later – including two meetings with union representatives at Itihaas and Restaurant 317 respectively – every one of the company’s non-managerial employees signed up as members of Australians Standing Together. The union approached the company the following week and, in accord with Hiranur’s and Kadri’s predictions, the top executives announced the company would cease trading and dispose of its assets. They claimed to be in debt and unable to pay wages owing, severance pay, or taxes – but soon backed off, when the union’s lawyers introduced documents showing management’s claim to be false.

Shahinaz, Nilufer, Hiranur, Kadri, and Nilufer’s cousin Ottmar met the union representatives at Sahara that week, with Bechir, Metin, and Demir standing outside to ensure no eskıya could disrupt the proceedings. Kadri asked the union people, ‘Can they just dispose of the company however they like?’

‘No,’ Audrey replied. ‘our solicitors have discovered they already have a paper company set up to take over your employer, but they’re both publicly traded companies, so there are regulations governing what they can do.’

‘If we could borrow the money – I don’t know how we ever could, but just supposing – could we buy the company?’ Hiranur asked.

‘I’ll have to ask the legal eagles, but I assume they’re required to sell to the highest bidder, so, probably, yes.’ Before the others could speak, Audrey continued, ‘Y’know, we just might have access to a fund that could lend you the money.’

 

That remark generated a great deal of excitement around the table, and all agreed to pursue that possibility. Contrary to the designs and wishes of the executive owners, the case has not yet been resolved. The low-ball offer from their closely held shadow corporation was outbid by a recently formed workers’ cooperative. That latter organisation’s purchase and operation of the business appears to be a genuine possibility.

 

 

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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Cora Tate repeated attempts to escape the entertainment industry brought work as a librarian, physics teacher, syndicated newspaper columnist and city planner. Cora writes and struggles to learn dzongkha in Bhutan and Queensland.

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