Writer Ian Munro profiles union delegate and United Voice Branch Councillor Gamal Babiker.
Only someone sure of themselves and their place in the world could laugh like Gamal Babiker. Laughter comes easily to him in the same breath as he says of himself: “It’s a sad life. It’s not a life.”
Gamal studied law in his native Sudan and practised his chosen profession until his progressive political beliefs clashed with the Muslim Brotherhood who were a strong influence in government. Making a living in the law became impossible.
He, with his wife Murdia and their three children aged from 10 down to five, fled to Egypt and via a refugee camp and assessment by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees came to settle in Melbourne.
Practising law in Australia never was an option, he says. ”I graduated from university in Africa. I studied in Arabic. It’s hard to shift and the law is different. You can’t study law without understanding the culture and the geography (of a place). I did not think about it. If you don’t have a strong (grasp of the) language you can’t be a lawyer.”
For almost a year he studied English. And for the past 13 years he has worked as a shopping centre cleaner.
Sometimes he has worked long hours of overtime earning just enough to support his family and keep his two daughters and his son in school. But now he works night shifts, including weekends, starting at midnight and ending at 8am. Even with the night penalties his pay is just $22.10 an hour. He shares just one day a week with Murdia and has neither the time nor the energy to maintain contact with his friends.
“Most of it is a physical manual handling job. Shopping centre owners, building managers, cleaning companies they don’t understand what that means. You are doing physical things all the time, working your brain, your body, your hands. When I finish my work I am looking to go to bed. (I am an) exhausted person.
“The money is not fair, it’s not fair for all the wear on my body. You have to walk everywhere in the centre – we are walking every day up to 15 kilometers to get the job done.”
Gamal is emphatic about the need for cleaners to join their union, United Voice, a group of workers providing essential services in early childhood education, health, entertainment and in the food and beverage industries.
“They can’t have a strong union without being a member and they should have some respect. There’s no respect for the cleaner. And they should have job security because the shopping centre owner, most of the time, or every two or three years, they change the contract and (the cleaners) miss out on their sick leave or lose their job.”
The Clean Start workplace agreement won by city office building cleaners needs to be won for cleaners outside the CBD, he says. Without night shift the pay is too low for the physical demands of the job. And with night penalties the pay is still not compensation enough for the sacrifices it demands.
Life as Melbourne people know it, of the ease of visiting public places like shopping centres kept clean and hygienic through the day and restored overnight by workers who take pride in their work, is possible only for the sacrifices of people like Gamal.
“The only day we meet as a family is Friday,” says Gamal. “Most Fridays we have dinner out but we have to finish before eight o’clock because Saturday shift starts midnight Friday.
“It’s not a life. It’s a sad life because I am doing Saturday and Sunday, no public holiday, to get more money and because of that for the last 15 years I miss my family, my friends because most people are off and I have to work. I destroy my life by doing night shift, I destroy my social life, my physical life. The night shift affects your body.”
Gamal’s conversation is punctuated with laughter. His is not a bitter laugh, but an easy one. He sees the absurdity of his situation. He is a man living with a family, working to support them, rarely there with them even though he is there for them in the ways that really count. He supports family in Sudan as well, where life for some of his nine siblings is truly desperate. He is a low income worker unable to work in his chosen field, yet supporting families on two continents. At his most fundamental, he is a happy man.
“I had my chance in life,” he explains. “I have to give a chance to my children. I am happy because I live in Australia, safe and my kids get educated. I am not happy I am working for 15 years and I have no savings. I have had no holiday for three years."
He misses also, the opportunity to use his mind in that keen way lawyers are trained to do.
“I miss that (using my training),” Gamal admits. “When you are facing leaving your country and you get sent to a country like Australia you have to think about the negative and the positive, and we get more positive than negative.
“I feel safe and secure. My kids graduated. This is what makes me happy.”