Mystery over migrant worker's death in rural Victoria

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The death of a migrant worker in rural Victoria is prompting calls for urgent changes to the way some farm labour hire companies operate. Police believe a 47-year-old Malaysian man whose visa had run out had been working on a farm near Mildura before he died.

Police believe a 47-year-old Malaysian man whose visa had expired had been working on a farm near Mildura before he died, but still don’t know how his body ended up in a toilet block by the side of a highway.

Ewe Leong Lim arrived in Australia last year, seeking work and opportunity.

Instead, police are investigating how the 47-year-old Malaysian man’s body came to be left inside a public toilet by the side of a highway near the Victorian town of Boundary Bend.

Police believe he had been earning money picking fruit east of the Victorian town of Mildura when he died of natural causes.

They also believe his body was moved to the toilet block sometime after his death.

By whom, and why, remains a mystery.

Sunraysia Mallee Ethnic Communities Council (SMECC) Chief Executive Dean Wickham said the death highlights a worrying trend among workers within the fruit-picking industry.

“It is frustrating and disappointing, and very, very sad”

“It’s inevitable this was going to happen,” he said. “It is frustrating and disappointing, and very, very sad.”

At SMECC headquarters in Mildura, volunteers and workers help the city’s new arrivals find work, organise paperwork and navigate the often complex processes that come with moving to a new country.

Though the organisation actively discourages working ‘cash in hand’ or without the right visa in Australia, Dean Wickham says he and his staff know that it happens frequently.

“It’s a tough thing, we are never going to stop this but we can actually intervene and make people safe,” he said.

Mr Wickham would like to see more dedicated services aimed at helping workers like Ewe Leong Lim without the fear of retribution.

“We need… potentially a volunteer outreach service ensuring that people get some sort of contact with basic welfare and health services.”

“That may be in the form of information, or a bus service that goes out to particular points without any fear of being reported to people,” he said.

Popular area for seasonal workers

With its vineyards, orchards and vegetable farms, the Sunraysia region has long been popular with seasonal workers.

They come to pick fruit or work in packing sheds at the dozens of properties that fan out along the banks of the Murray River, stretching towards the South Australian border.

Some are Australian, many are backpackers and others are recent migrants who are able to find work easily without needing fluent English.

When she arrived in the city five years ago, Chelsey Morello came as one of the hundreds of young backpackers looking to work in a regional area as a way of extending her visa.

“Fifty per cent of my wage was taken from me by a contractor,” she said.

“We didn’t last very long.”

But she said the city held its appeal anyway, and she stayed in Mildura, eventually becoming the manager of Sunset Backpackers.

'We need some protections in place'

She says she still hears many accounts of backpackers being exploited or short-changed by  unregistered labour contractors who often also set up boarding houses for temporary workers.

“Every day, without fail. Every day.”

“It's unbelievable some of the stories you hear, there's people that lose thousands of dollars to contractors, hostel operators that aren't actually hostels, they're just share houses.”

“A lot of people will get backpackers to sign contracts and hand over a lot of money before they've seen where they're staying. And they're lost, they have nothing left.”

Dean Wickham would like to see labour contracting companies -- who act as middle men between labourers and farmers -- more heavily regulated.

“We need some protections in place for the most vulnerable people and those seem to be those coming here to work within the industry that underpins this whole local economy," he said. 

“You’re not being a bad neighbour by dobbing in an unregistered rooming house, you’re actually being a good citizen by doing so."  

Asparagus farmer Wayne Stephens uses seasonal pickers and packers at his NSW farm, just over the border from Mildura.

He supports workers getting fair wages, but also believes more regulation would put pressure on farmers without delivering better outcomes for workers.

“The trouble is, if Immigration or the tax department or any of those regulators shut down a contractor or labour hire person, he’ll move to the next town, he’ll change his name and he’ll start again.”

“That’s why a lot of the regulations will focus on penalising the farmers – because they know the farmer’s not going anywhere.”

“It was very hard job, hard job”

Former fruit picker Jan Guzari is originally from Afghanistan.

He worked – legally – on a peach and apricot farm near the South Australian town of Renmark two years ago.

“It was very hard job, hard job,” he said. “But the money is good.”

He believes there’s one way migrants can protect themselves.

“Illegal work, no good,” he said.

Dean Wickham is hopeful change will come to the industry. He plans to hold a community forum to tackle ways of making fruit picking safer for workers

But any changes will come too late for Malaysian national Ewe Leong Lim.

Police now hope someone can provide the vital breakthrough to solve the mystery surrounding his death. 

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