Interview: Crowded Lives
Activists: Life With Brian
Industrial: National Focus
Unions: If These Walls Could Talk
Economics: Beating the Bastards
Media: Three Corners
History: The Brisbane Line
Trade: The Dumping Problem
Review: Frankie's Way
The Locker Room
Spicey and Tart
Tony and Pauline
PNG Bags Plastic
Fighting Words Craig Emerson
Life With Brian
Mohammad Akram and Brian Fitzpatrick are the odd couple behind shifting alliances on the fringes of Sydney's multi-billion dollar building industry.
Fitzpatrick is middle-aged and Aussie to his back teeth. Akram is Shia Moslem, Hazara by culture, and still trying to find his feet in a strange land.
They met, just on two years ago when Akram, not long out of Woomera Detention Centre, had more worries than dollars.
In Australia on a temporary protection visa he was worried about his tax status, and distressed that wages from his painting job would turn up sporadically, if at all. It also bothered him that he got just $80 a day, for long hours often spread over six, and sometimes seven, days a week.
Mostly though, he worried about his wife and two young children, languishing in Pakistan.
Fact is, friends told him, if he didn't get his own status in order he could forget about seeing them, certainly in Australia.
With some trepidation, Akram walked into the tax office and laid his cards on the table. It was clear the painting contractor he worked for hadn't been forwarding tax.
In desperation, Akram asked what he could do.
"They told me there is a special department by the name of union. I might get some help from them," Akram recalls.
Which is where, in September 2001, he came face to face with Fitzpatrick.
"Mohammad is a very decent human being," Fitzpatrick says. "When he came here he had no money. He was frightened but he was also very dignified.
"We do quite a bit of work with refugees and, to be honest, some of them are so desperate they exaggerate or don't tell the whole story. He gave me the facts and was prepared to see it through."
Akram is straight alright. Ask him how he got to Australia and he doesn't mince words.
"Smuggler," he says. "I have to do something.
"The Taliban want to kill all Hazara people, they don't like Shia people. If you don't have the beard you are in trouble."
Fitzpatrick contacted the employer but all Parramatta-based Storm Painting and Decorating gave him was the brush. So the CFMEU stopped its St Mary's job with a 127 order, notifying the builder he would be liable if wages weren't paid.
The builder then agreed to a $2000 bridging payment so Akram could pay his rent and buy food while Fitzpatrick chased Storm.
Within weeks, the company came across with $23,000 to settle the claim.
It was a way off what Akram was owed but, then again, it was more money than he had ever seen, even after he handed $5000 to the ATO, another $2000 to CBUS, and paid off mounting bills. Besides, the experienced union man reckoned, it was the best deal that was going to come along.
"This happens all the time," Fitzpatrick says. "Some people think we're doing well but we're actually arguing about money that belongs to our people in the first place. There's no bonus in it, but we have to be realistic."
Basically, the CFMEU handles the increasing number of such cases like this - the worker needs to front the boss and stand up for himself, in return it will use its muscle to push his interests.
"I've had them rolling around on the floor in this office, trying to get at one another," Fitzpatrick says, of the original boss-worker discussions.
The non-formal approach appeals to newcomers who, by the time they walk through the union's door, have usually had more than enough of courts and bureaucracy.
"Part of the role of a militant union is to circumvent all the crap," Fitzpatrick says. "Besides, these people can't afford to wait around for months."
After the settlement he used his contacts to get Akram a start with the Seanna Group, painting at Concord Hospital.
Twenty one months down the track he's still there and so impressed is his new employer that he went into bat for the former Afghan Ministry of Mines and Industry worker when his temporary protection visa came up for review.
This is no one-way street, however, the CFMEU is benefiting from the work of Fitzpatrick and others by word of mouth around immigrant communities.
Since Akram's victory, dozens, maybe even hundreds of building industry newcomers from the Middle East - Afghans, Iranians, Iraqis and Kurds for the most part - have joined the union. Mainly painters, concreters and, to a lesser extent, bricklayers, they are predominantly employed by small operators who have traditionally flown below the union radar.
Just last week, two more Afghans were referred by refugee support group, House of Welcome, and Fitzpatrick was able to find them work.
He sees them as part of the continuing story of Australia's evolution.
"I went to Liverpool Boys High in the 1950s and I reckon 40 percent of the kids I went to school with came through Villawood (Detention Centre)," he says. "At a school like that, you quickly learn that all people are basically good, all they need is a chance.
"Now we are seeing vulnerable people from the Middle East being underpaid, ripped off, mainly by people from their own communities. What's new?
"The Germans, Italians, Poles and Irish all started the same way, same with the Asians. Now they are part of mainstream Australian society.
"We can't help all these people but if we can give some of them a leg-up then so much the better.
Akram has brought a friend to our meeting, Murtaza Jafari, to help with translations. When Jafari finally speaks on his own account we learn it is not his first visit to the Lidcombe office.
He got a $3000 settlement after being underpaid on construction security.
"Mohammad told me to come over. He said it was a good place," Jafari says.
New immigrant communities are tight and relatively small. Experiences travel quickly and there's nothing quite like a personal recommendation from one of your own.
Akram's message is simple and his friends are listening.
"The help the union gave to me I will never forget," he says. "I will remember it for my whole life.
"I couldn't believe anyone in this country would give me that help and I tell everybody. At work, I am very happy now. My employer is good and he pays me."
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