THE RIGHT TO WORK
Since 2010, I have been teaching part time at a vocational college called TAFE in Port Adelaide. My students are referred to TAFE via job agencies. The Gillard government funds this Skills for Education and Employment (SEE) program that aims to get people off the dole and into jobs.
Students do not have to pay for their lessons. In fact, they are given a small education stipend. But to remain in the program, they must maintain satisfactory attendance levels. Keenly aware of this, they justify their absences by telling me something of their private lives: messy divorce, chronic pain, a son in hospital.
Some lessons involve bringing in photos from home while resume writing recalls past professions: farmer, baker, electrician. In this way, the students and I become familiar with one another. One day, I am walking back to the staff room when two students greet me. The older lady says something in Vietnamese and the younger lady translates for her.
‘You cut your hair?’ they ask.
‘Yes,’ I say.
The older lady speaks.
The younger lady looks dubious. ‘I don’t think I should translate that.’
‘Go ahead,’ I bravely urge.
‘She says your hairdresser isn’t very good.’
It only hurt a little. After the summer holidays, the older lady gives me a set of coasters made of hammered metal, inlaid with mosaics of blue, white, pink and mottled gold.
If you were to look into our classroom, you would see around twenty people, none of whom were born in Australia. (The Australian-born are in a different class because of different literacy needs.) My students have come from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East, but on good days we have moments whereby it almost feels as if we are family.
As part of the English curriculum, I teach Form Filling. Teachers are encouraged to use authentic materials so I create a worksheet by referring to actual Immigration Department forms.
In class, a plump African lady, hijab framing her kindly face, points to a question on the worksheet and asks, ‘Number of children – children in Australia only or also the one still in refugee camp?’
She is earnest. She wants to fill in the correct number. I am horrified. I cannot imagine living with such anguish. How trivial my lessons seem.
Even with the support of the government, my students struggle to find work. There are many reasons for this: ill health, scarcity of unskilled work due to factory closures, language barriers.
Around this time, the Gillard government is desperately trying to stem the tide of asylum seeker boats. In 2012, the government adopts the ‘No Advantage’ principal: boat arrivals should gain no advantage in their claim for asylum over someone waiting to be resettled in a refugee camp. One of the ways this is enforced is by denying asylum seekers working rights.
Instead, the government gives them money to survive. This survival stipend is set at a portion of the unemployment benefit. I meet an Iranian asylum seeker who tells me that he volunteers at a hospital kitchen to pass time. But he is not allowed to eat leftovers – that would be benefiting from his volunteering, making it akin to work. This seems, to me, excessively cruel.
The denial of working rights confounds me. On the one hand, I am paid to get Australians off unemployment benefits. On the other hand, the government is forcing asylum seekers on to welfare, the purpose of which is not for them to fare well. Rather, it is to deter people smugglers and other potential asylum seekers. The cost of human displacement is high enough, I think, without such punitive policies.
And so, I decide to write a book.
Next instalment and launch of the book proper: Friday 1 March.
Previous instalment (Prologue Part 1 here.)