In April 1996, on
the 4 Corners television program on the Australian Broadcasting
Commission, there was a program about outworkers. These women sewing in
their homes, in Australia, in garages and loungerooms, for $2 an hour.
I couldn't believe
it. I thought
"We've got a basic wage, a minimum wage in this country. We have
industrial laws, and yet here are wrokers in Australia routinely being
underpaid and employers are getting away with it".
I set out to find
out if indeed it was happening.
At the time I was
doing Social Policy and I had to do an essay assignment so I thought I
would combine it with that. That program alerted me to something I hadn't
known could happen in Australia.
So, I spoke to the unions - I spoke to Annie Delaney
from the TCF union, I spoke to the churches and to some groups who had
been involved in investigating this.
"We are looking at setting up a community campaign to work alongside
I thought about that and I thought
"Wow, that would really be something",
because the more I looked at it, the more I could see that what we had
here was a Third World economy with Third World conditions operating in
our beautiful, wealthy First World economy.
The contradictions were glaring.
So, I came on board with the Fairwear campaign
before it was launched. I was working as a student on placement, getting
it up. Then, after it was launched, as we got a little bit of money, I
started working part-time. Initially I was working 2 days a week, co-ordinating
During that campaign I met a lot of really brave, clever,
wonderful women. It reinforced for me the capacity for people to overcome
adversity. But it also showed up the question of why they should face
I remember standing at a picket one weekend, outside
a factory in Broadmeadows. The factory made shirts and suit for, as it
turned out, people like Jeff Kennett - the right-wing Premier of Victoria.
These women told me they knew of factories where the
women would go to work and find a red dot on their sewing machine, indicating
they hadn't sewed the required amount the day before. This put them on
notice - if retrenchments were happening - they were sacked.
They were also timed when they went to the toilet and
heavily supervised. They told me how they came to work and were told to
do a certain amount of, say, collars. It was something astronomical like
4,000 collars in a day.
They would come to work and find the collars hadn't been
correctly cut. So the women had to recut them. But that wasn't factored
into the time they were allowed. So they would still end up with a red
I realized that it wasn't just outworkers, it was in-factory
workers, working under legal conditions, with all the protections that
should involve, who were still being really badly treated.
I spent five and a half years with the Fairwear
campaign. They were fantastic years. I learnt a lot. I worked with wonderful
people. Annie Delaney was one of the people who really inspired me.
Annie has an incredible energy, a very clear focus and
great integrity. That is the sort of thing you need to take you through
a campaign where you are constantly being asked to do deals - to pass
over things. Because this was what we were asked. This was a hard campaign
for politicians and employers.
In the beginning they denied it was happening. By the
end, they knew they had to acknowledge it. We got state legislation in
the end. We wanted national legislation, we didn't get it.
But in the meantime we fought two successive waves of
Peter Reith trying to undermine workers' conditions. We were at the forefront
of that, and the situation of outworkers was so well known and accepted
that the politicians couldn't go around it.