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Migrant Women's Activism

The 1970s and 1980s were decades of activism in Australia on many fronts: the peace movement, environmentalism, feminism (and those opposed to it) and workers’ rights. The Review of Post-Arrival Programs and Services for Migrants, known as the Galbally Report, opened the door after 1978 to the idea of migrants’ rights, a concept that in its turn paved the way to multiculturalism. Yet in the ferment of rights activism and clashing ideologies, migrant women found themselves largely isolated from the defining movements of contemporary Australia.

Their actions contradicted the ideas held by conservative Australians about appropriate roles for women, yet their cultural traditions and working-class concerns often prevented their connection with the mainstream feminist movement. Although the Galbally Report made specific reference to the needs of migrant women, there was little action from government at any level. Unions were reluctant to engage with issues important to them. Migrant women were mostly left to make their own way, assisted by the cultural organisations within their communities.

Women at Work

Migrant women came from many different backgrounds, from small rural villages to modern cities, from traditional societies to nations whose attitudes to working women were more advanced than Australia in the 1970s. Most migrant families came with few assets and women had to work in order to keep the family afloat financially. Most of them, regardless of background, experience or qualifications, worked in factories. The garment, textile and food processing industries employed the greatest numbers.

Lack of English, discrimination by supervisors and unfamiliarity with their working rights meant that migrant women were often left with the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs on the factory floor. They were particularly vulnerable to exploitation through a ‘bonus system’ that committed them to meeting unsafe production levels. Employers stated that migrant women were best suited to – and indeed did not mind – mindless tasks in appalling conditions. Even the medical profession was sceptical of work-related injuries. ‘Migrant arm’ became a code word for injuries believed to be faked, and migrant women were described as accident-prone and over-emotional.

Despite the fact that many migrant women were unionised workers, the labour movement was in general slow to respond. Meetings conducted in English, and at night-time when women were home caring for families, reduced their participation. Most unions were concerned with the issues that were significant to male workers, not to ‘women’s problems’ like child care, the provision of female toilets or safety conditions in female-dominated factory positions. One of the few exceptions was the Working Women’s Centre, although it had its own struggles to survive in the male-dominated world of the unions.

In 1976 the Centre for Urban Research and Action published the report ‘But I wouldn’t want my wife to work here…’ and exposed working conditions in Melbourne factories. The follow-up ABC Four Corners program focussed on migrant women and the dangers and discrimination they faced. For the first time, mainstream Australia became aware of the exploitation of migrant women, and unions were persuaded (even embarrassed) into addressing the issue.

In spite of difficult conditions and continued discrimination, many women found that their jobs had some positive aspects. The factory provided a place to make friends and overcome the social isolation that language and culture often imposed. Receiving a pay cheque encouraged independence and a greater voice in family decisions, often in defiance of cultural traditions, and led to greater autonomy in other areas of their lives.

Child Care

Although child care was a social issue for many women in the 1970s, for migrant women it was a pivotal concern. Most migrant women with families had to work, but child care was virtually non-existent or built around the needs of Anglo-Australian families. The extended family that so many had relied on in their countries of origin was no longer available. The result was a piecemeal structure of arrangements to look after children while parents were at work: alternating shifts, leaving children with neighbours or even – in the most desperate situations – leaving them on their own.

In 1977 Co.As.It opened the first child care centre that offered the children of Italian migrants an environment that was culturally appropriate: familiar food, Italian-speaking carers and rules that encouraged the kind of behaviour expected by the community. Greek, Turkish and Jewish organisations also set up child care for their families.

There was a push in the late 1970s to recognise child care for working women as a social issue that extended beyond the family. FILEF Women’s Group, a women’s action group for Italian migrant labourers, undertook to raise support for child care located where it was needed by migrant workers, near the factories and the packing plants. This flew in the face of accepted practice, which believed that children should be cared for in the home-like environment of a residential neighbourhood, not an industrial location.

After a long campaign, they succeeded in convincing unions, employers and three levels of government to provide the support and funding needed. The Anne Sgro Children’s Centre opened in Coburg in 1984. Although work-based child care is now an accepted and valued form of child care, this was the first time in Melbourne that child care was linked to the workplace.

Women’s Health

For many women, moving to Australia brought upheavals in family structure beyond the problems of finding child care. Families dependent on a wife’s wage could not afford the lost working time or cost of additional children. Many came from backgrounds where contraception was not available, and their lack of English prevented them from learning about it in Australia. For many women, the only means of birth control was abortion.

In 1977, 200 women attended a public forum in Melbourne to discuss the specific needs of migrant women in family planning. Rather than demanding interpreter services or other changes to existing services, they embarked on a radical program of public education. Taking advantage of factory lunchrooms that were segregated by gender, they started a series of workplace education sessions in the women’s own languages. From basic anatomy to the use of condoms, diaphragms and the Pill, the volunteers of Action for Family Planning brought women’s health education into the open. Operating today as the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health, the program still offers workplace-based health education across a broad range of topics and languages.

Domestic Violence

In the 1970s, services for all victims of domestic violence were limited, with refuges such as the Halfway House straining to accommodate those women and children who needed help. Migrant and ethnic women faced additional problems of discrimination within the refuge system. Migrant women often needed two or three stays in refuges before gaining the confidence to leave a relationship which also meant, for many, leaving their home, language and culture. Some refuge workers believed this pattern of leave-and-return endangered their own safety as well as that of other residents, and were reluctant to admit them. Workers were largely Anglo-Australian, without the knowledge - or sometimes the desire - to help women from other cultures.

In the mid 1970s, Co.As.It opened a safe house for Italian migrant women and their children in a secret location. After years of negotiating for federal government funding, in 1978 they established a refuge open to migrant women of all cultures, the first of its kind in Australia. By the 1980s, however, it became clear that a single refuge was not enough to accommodate all migrant women who needed an escape from domestic violence. Rather than opening additional shelters, however, the refuge workers started the Refuge Ethnic Workers’ Program (REWP), which provided support for migrant women in any refuge in Melbourne. REWP workers were able to work with women in their own language, provide counselling based on knowledge of their culture and mediate with other refuge workers. The program has continued and expanded over the years, and is now known as the Immigrant Women’s Domestic Violence Service.

Contemporary Concerns

Despite the gains of the last thirty years, many of the women who were activists in the 1970s and 1980s believe that little has changed for migrant women. Language barriers still exist, especially for elderly women, long-time residents who have never had the chance to learn English, and newly arrived migrants. Working conditions in factories have improved markedly, but exploitation – mostly of a new generation of female migrants – continues in the home-based piecework garment industry. Child care has moved from a community model to a privatised commodity, and the cost has become prohibitive for all working-class families. And it has been estimated that one in three Australian women, regardless of background, have experienced domestic violence.

A study commissioned by the Victorian government in 2005 named social isolation, lack of English classes and a shortage of services for physical and mental health and to counter domestic violence as the greatest concerns of migrant women. A new generation of women face similar problems as did their predecessors thirty years ago.

Peg Fraser