Migrants In A Remote Corner Of Australia

Griffith is a cosmopolitan city of 27,000 where immigrants from sixty countries reside. It has a large Aboriginal presence as the heartland of Wiradjuri people

Migrants In A Remote Corner Of Australia

This scribe has been coming as a visitor to Griffith, NSW in Australia, where his daughter resides with her family. It is a small agricultural town with vast rice, wheat, cotton, oranges, grapes and almonds growing in the fields. There are large cattle and sheep farms as well, and a huge Halal-certified chicken processing factory along with its network of poultry farms.

These are labour-intensive ventures. Oranges, strawberries, cherries, watermelons, rock merlons and table grapes, as most of the vegetables too, are handpicked, graded and packed for internal and external export. A large seasonal workforce is therefore required during each harvest season to undertake these chores. The chicken factory alone employs over 500 workers. The Australian government grants temporary visas to thousands of workers for farm work. These visa schemes have attracted a large number of workers from Malaysia and Indonesia, who are predominantly Muslim. Many Pakistanis, mainly from Swat, have settled here to do farm work. Turks have monopoly over popular kebab and bread outlets, and many Egyptians work in pharmacies.

Sitting among a galaxy of dresses and hearing an array of languages being spoken in the local mosque during the Friday prayers, this author wondered what compulsions had brought these diverse people to live in this far flung corner of Australia.

Griffith is a cosmopolitan city of 27,000 where immigrants from sixty countries reside. It has a large Aboriginal presence as the heartland of Wiradjuri people. Stan Grant, the longtime CNN correspondent, a writer and a filmmaker, was born in Griffith of Wiradjuri descent. This scribe had a chance meeting with him in the local market once and he presented me one of his books.

The Pakistani diaspora in Griffith numbers under 250, and falls in two categories. First, a few medical degree holders who have arrived here through legal means and are not only well employed after clearing Australian medical qualifying exams, but also well respected. Second, semi-literate farm workers, asylum seekers and some illegal immigrants who found a path to citizenship.

The illegal immigrants are of various types. Some are boat people who came on visa to a southeast Asian country and then headed south in a boat from Indonesia. They are invariably caught, put in holding areas on Christmas Islands and then allowed to come on the mainline. Their initial legal status is uncertain but they get temporary visa to work on farms. Some illegal migrants first landed in large coastal towns on study visa but moved inwards to find cash-paid farm work and to seek anonymity in this small agricultural town. Some eventually gain legal status as citizens through marriage to a local resident. Thereafter, they find a way to bring over their first family, if they had one in Pakistan. Some of these people have done well economically through hard work and now own farms that they initially worked at.

The asylum seekers are a recent phenomenon in the post nine-eleven period and are still struggling to settle down. Except for a handful, they all live without families. They are also mostly farmhands employed at the minimum rate of wages. These latter groups are very conservative in their religious beliefs and practices. Crucially, unlike Indians, there is no Pakistani employed on skilled labour, which is a testament to lack of recognized vocational training institutions in our country.

It is surprising to notice many migrants from district Swat from Pakistan. The area has been hotbed of insurgency in the past and many of its citizens have been granted political asylum in Australia. There is a lengthy process under which these people can continue to work while their asylum application is processed. In the absence of any proof to the contrary, it can be assumed that their lives may have been in danger in their own land. One cannot, however, help feel sorry for these people.

Most people in their social and family circles back home must be thinking that these people have been lucky to go to a developed world. Though partly true, actual life of these semi-literate, ill-trained and non-English speaking people is worse than what it would have been in the serene surroundings of that picturesque valley.

Living in crammed shared accommodations, they are farm workers, earning less than the minimum wages of AUD 23.23 per hour which adds up to AUD 50,000 or under Rs10 million per annum. Leaving about AUD 6,000 for taxes (yes, everyone is taxed here heavily), AUD 15,000 for housing and utilities, and another AUD 15,000 for living expenses, it leaves a saving of AUD 15,000 or Rs3 million per annum, or two and a half lac per month for remittance to families back home. There is little left with them for anything else like savings, medical, clothing, travel or entertainment. It’s a life of toil, away from family and loved ones.

With little savings, and because of the conditions attached to asylum visa, they find it hard to travel back to their own towns or villages. Some of these poor immigrants are doing very well for their families. I know of at least two such persons here, who have been able to educate one each of their children in private medical colleges in Pakistan. That’s a great achievement and a consolation for their lonely living far away from their homes. However, the remittance calculated above can easily be earned by a trained tradesman, a general store owner or an appropriately educated person. The failure lies in the dereliction of their duties by those in power, who have paid no attention for education or vocational training of the youth so that they can make a decent living with their loved ones.

In many ways these migrants are doing better than living in abject poverty in the under developed and over populated Swat Valley; a fact that is true for many other parts of Pakistan where untrained men work for as little as Rs25,000 per month; that is if they are lucky enough to find a job. This author has not come across anyone from Gujarat-Sialkot-Gujranwala axis who has taken the boat route to Australia. Perhaps it is due to the availability fraudulent manpower smugglers; the ones in central Punjab specialize on European routes while the ones in upper Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are linked to the Southeast Asian sector.

As mentioned above, trained technical manpower from Pakistan is difficult to find here. There are degree holders or untrained workers. There are many auto and machinery workers from India and Philippines who have earned their work visa due to recognized diplomas from their technical institutes. While informally trained Pakistani workers in these fields can compete fairly due to their hands-on experience, yet, without a diploma, they cannot find employment here due to strict fair-practice laws and insurance requirements.

If Pakistan wants to export quality and better earning manpower, it has to invest into technical and vocational training. Pakistani youth can be hardworking, dedicated and quick to learn. The owner of a high-quality (no added sugars, no preservatives, no concentrate) fruit juice producing local factory here said that if it weren’t for his Pakistani manpower (again, most from Swat), he would be forced to close his business. That has been possible because of the local branch of countrywide Australian Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institutes that provide certified training on scores of technical trades.

A sizable Indian community exists in the town. Some of the Sikhs, who are hardworking and enterprising, came to this place in early 1960s and own several Indian stores and restaurants. Another large Indian community exists of migrants from the state of Gujrat, and their numbers have multiplied rapidly. Now, a whole housing estate is inhabited by them. The enterprising Gujaratis own several businesses in the town.

The Australian government issues a temporary farm-work visa that allows many Malaysian and Indonesian unskilled workers to come to rural Australian for farm work. This short-term visa is valid for up to three years. Griffith being an agricultural town is a major attraction for these farm-workers.

As they live on the scattered farms outside the town, they are visible together only during the Friday prayers at the local mosque. Some of them prefer wearing their national dress for the weekly gathering. Attired in their colourful Batik shirts and Sarongs (similar to Punjabi ‘Lungi’ or ‘Tehmet’), they make a vibrant sight. However, during the current visit, this author found that their numbers have largely dwindled. The Australian government now prefers workers from Pacific islands and has allowed them 35,000 visas for farm work, cutting back at the Muslim majority southeast Asian nations. As compared to pre-Covid times, there is a large number of farmworkers from sub-Saharan countries too.

Griffith was established in 1916 with the creation of the irrigation canal system. The land was virgin and machinery non-existent. It was the First World War-era. The returning soldiers, Australian as well as the allies such as British and Italian, were allocated lands that they had to break in through the sweat of their brows. They worked hard to make the land profitable for their families. A large number of Italians immigrated to this region during the 1930s to escape poverty in southern Italy.

Today, 60% of Griffith's population is of Italian heritage. Griffith is one of the largest wine producing regions of Australia; an industry that is dominated by the Italians. The Italians have worked very hard under trying circumstances. This author has met many of them who came here as children but neither their parents nor they have ever gone back to Italy, though Italians live in close-knit families.

However, as against their grandfathers, the new generation of the initial European farmers don’t like hard farm work. Deployment of highly technical farm machinery and computer technology has made agriculture efficient and easy but some tasks, as listed in the first paragraph above, are still performed by hand. Most members of the current generation would rather move to a bigger town than look after the farms. Too much welfare and too high taxes have disincentivised hard work for certain sections of Australian citizens at both ends of the economic ladder. This provides opportunities for foreign temporary workers, whose number has increased over the years.

Australia is a beautiful country. It is a land of happy, law-abiding people. It’s a large country, nearly 3,000 kilometres east to west, and north to south. The immigrants, however they are here, need to take the excellent options available here to educate their children and integrate them in the local society. Integration is looked upon as heretical by a certain conservative section of Muslim society, but it doesn’t imply drinking alcohol or eating pork or giving up our socio-religious values. It only means to accept the values of mutual existence, freedom of choices and ascendancy of local laws.

These are the values that have made Western nations peaceful and wealthy, and are the reason that our people are attracted towards them. It is only through integration that immigrants can rise on social, economic and political ladders.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: parvezmahmood53@gmail.com