Malaysia. Oanh Tran With Family and Friends
© Supplied
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How a Vietnamese refugee became a Fair Work Commissioner

Oanh Thi Tran shares her remarkable story of escape to becoming one of Australia’s leaders in industrial relations and employment law.

Forty years ago, Oanh Thi Tran was hidden inside the hold of her father’s fishing boat as the family fled Vietnam, setting sail across the high seas towards an unknown future.   

Today, she sits proudly at the bench of the Fair Work Commission as the country’s first woman Commissioner from a refugee background. 

“[This is] the pinnacle of a career in industrial relations, in employment law, and it is an absolute privilege to have got here,” says Oanh.

A dangerous escape

Oanh and her family were among hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people who fled by boat after Communist forces took over the country at the end of the Vietnam War. At the time, the Communist government had closed the borders and was stopping people from leaving the country.

Malaysia. Oanh Tran With Family and Friends
© Supplied
Oanh (bottom row left, in pink dress) with family members and friends in a UNHCR refugee camp in Malaysia in1982.

Despite the risk of leaving, Oanh's father – a seasoned fisherman – set sail for Malaysia in search of safety and freedom for his family. “[My father] made sure the boat looked just like a fishing boat in case the Vietnamese government or authorities found [us].”

They were attacked by pirates along the way but escaped unscathed. For 12 months, they lived in a UN Refugee Agency camp in Malaysia before the agency helped them resettle in Brisbane in 1983. The Tran family eventually rented a small house in the city’s West End. 

New life in Australia

The largely migrant and refugee community was welcoming, but Oanh’s parents found it hard to find jobs. Her mother worked in a canning factory but struggled with English and finding care for Oanh, who did not want to leave her side. Her father continued to fish and was away at sea for months. He eventually developed pneumonia and couldn’t continue his work. 
Left with few other options, the family started sewing work in their garage at home to survive. Aged eight, Oanh remembers working on mountains of shirts and using her small fingers to thread sewing machines. Ventilation was poor in the small garage and the family would often be woken in the middle of the night with an order from their employer to sew hundreds of T-shirts within a day or two. 
“I would go to school having not slept the night before because we had this order arrive, but I would never talk about it because of this fear,” says Oanh. “My family always had a fear... that if we did anything wrong, we would be sent back. So, we were told to be very obedient.” 

Passion for social justice

In those early years, Oanh grew to understand the struggles migrants, refugees and low-paid workers faced in Australia. “I cared about making sure that people were able to work safely and that their work was properly valued. I cared about social justice.” 

Australia. Oanh Thi Tran. Fair Work Commissioner
© Adam Perry
Prior to joining the Fair Work Commission, Oanh worked as an employment and discrimination law lawyer in firms in the UK and QLD.

Her passion and empathy led her to study law at the University of Queensland. Oanh’s first job after law school was as an associate to Supreme Court Justice Roslyn Atkinson, who described Oanh as one of the best associates she ever had. 

Oanh later worked as a lawyer in firms that dealt with workers’ rights before joining the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia. After a distinguished career in industrial relations, Oanh Thi Tran was sworn in as a Commissioner at the Fair Work Commission in Melbourne in 2023. 
Part of Oanh’s role with Australia’s workplace tribunal involves finding resolutions to disputes. 
“I would like to think that someone who looks like me gives the Australian public the confidence that the institution will give them those opportunities to make their case,” Oanh said. “I try to ensure that everyone who comes before me feels that they are heard.”

A proud refugee

Many years have passed since Oanh escaped Vietnam, but she does not want to forget her refugee past. For a long time Oanh and her family called themselves migrants, not refugees. Amid negative news and political rhetoric around people who arrived by boat in search of safety, there was a sense of shame. 

Australia. Oanh Tran's Visa application photo aged three
© Supplied
Oanh, aged 3, in her Australian visa photo.

“It’s important for me to say ‘look — I am a refugee and I'm contributing to Australian society’. And so are my brothers and sisters.
“They’re all incredibly successful. They have homes, and they have children making their own lives. They're happy, they're safe. And this is all any other refugee wants.”

Watch more of Oanh's inspiring story:

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