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21 February 2015


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It's still going on.

Senate estimates this week discussed conditions and health checks for Pacific Islanders brought to Australia to work under the seasonal workers program. The vast majority work in the horticultural sector.

There have been consistent reports of exploitation within the seasonal workers program, including underpayment of workers, unreasonable deductions, harsh conditions, inadequate food and medical care.

Government officials disclosed to estimates this week that seven seasonal workers have died in Australia since the seasonal workers program began in 2012. Three of those have died due to heart disease, two in motor vehicle accidents and the cause of death has not been determined in two cases.

A 40-year-old Tongan father of two, Paulo Kivalu, died in October 2016 picking fruit in Bowen in Queensland. Sione Fifita, 22, also from Tonga, died in May this year, after working in Childers.

Just over 4,000 seasonal worker program visas have been granted this financial year.

“Contractors supplying Australia’s major supermarkets, for instance, have been found to have been complicit in the serious exploitation of migrant labour … with workers reporting gross underpayment over many months, assaults and harassment, and some female workers being propositioned for sexual favours in exchange for visas,” it said.

Sad to see that this is still happening with a vengeance five years after we first reported it. Now it's Queensland and the seasonal workers are from Vanuatu.

Some have received no pay whatsoever after several months work. Others are in debt to scammers, and have been threatened with deportation and are forced to live in sub-standard conditions with little or no food.

The story of these 22 men from Vanuatu is compelling not only because of the sheer brazen nature of their exploitation, which was described by Justice Jarrett in a judgement as "appalling".

But, significantly, the exploitation occurred as part of the Australian government's own program to bring seasonal workers from Pacific islands.

The scheme is supposed to fulfil the need for low-skilled labour in Australia's horticulture sector and to deliver aid in the form of employment to struggling Pacific nations. It's also supposed to be the nation's most exploitation proof.

But these men's treatment reinforces the fear that some had of the Seasonal Worker Program (SWP) that it would mimic the notorious practice of "blackbirding", in which up to 62,000 Pacific islander people were forced into slavery in 19th-century Queensland.

"Most received no wages and while in Australia they had to endure appalling treatment by Mr Bani, who had received payment for the labour undertaken by the employees and payment from the Australian government pursuant to [the SWP]," Justice Jarrett found.

"This case concerns the serious exploitation of vulnerable foreign workers lured to Australia by false promises ... Employees were at times deprived of the appropriate basic living standards expected in Australia."

The judge found it "difficult to imagine more egregious conduct" than that displayed by Bani (the chief offender), and warned of its potential to undermine confidence in the SWP.

Aru returned to Vanuatu in debt, having been exploited and threatened.

"Slavery claims as seasonal workers from Vanuatu paid nothing for months' work" Sydney Morning Herald, March 27th.

Illiterate citizens of PNG have been misled by a particular woman who sourced revenue from them and never employed them in the fruit picking.

Attempts have been made by the affected over last 2-3 years, only some succeeded to have their monies repaid some time last year. Concerned.

The sub-contractor labour scam is rife in Australia and despite numerous whistleblowers, little seems to have been done. My own wife Rose was subject to this when working as a contractor picking grapes in Mildura, and afterwards when employed as a cleaner at our local RSL club. (See PNG Attitude passim).

It seems black people, students and overseas workers on temporary visas who are the most vulnerable are easy pickings for the scams and conmen.

At least TV current affairs programmes are covering this to some extent, but the true nature of this has not been exposed.

It is a system seemingly designed to encourage exploitation and corruption. Want a permanent work visa? Come to us and we will give you one - just give us $10,000 or more.

And who are these 'sub-contractors' that legitimate Australian organisations prostitute their employment obligations to? We can name a few, but it is up to the Australian authorities and trades unions to investigate this. There is widespread corruption in the casual employment of vulnerable people in Australia. Rose and I can give chapter and verse to a few examples, but it is much wider than this.

Pick fruit for three months and you are lucky to clear all of $1,500 (when promised $10,000). Clean toilets and floors in a club for a month part-time and you might make $150 (when promised the award rate which should give around $1,400)? As I said previously this is now subject to Fair Work Ombudsman inquiry, but I don't hold out much hope.

This is the unhealthy side of Australia's unseen 'slave labour'.

We have recently met a young woman from Malaysia working at our local club as a cleaner. She has worked for three months, aiming to save enough to travel back to her home to be with her family. She was given $850 in wages, with someone else's name on the payslip. No super, no tax - all 'off the record' so no comeback. And as she had overstayed her visa she was too afraid to speak out.

When she challenged her sub-contractor 'employer' his reply was 'if you don't like it, get out.' When we challenged the club, they said 'it's not our problem, speak to the contractor' and slammed the door on us.

And this is widespread - it is not just a few anecdotes.

There is an evil underground economy in Australia. Many organisations are taking advantage of this (including our local RSL club), and it is disgusting. And no one in authority seems to care.

There is a big scam going on with seasonal PNG workers in south-east Queensland. There is a woman there who has a PR (permanent residency) and is running this scam.

Workers report to Australian authorities that they've been assaulted by their husbands and tribesmen and are in grave danger if they go back home.

They are then given protective visas to stay in Australia. This woman even flies to Port Moresby to bribe medical doctors, police and courts to collect false statements to use as evidence to back them up.

She facilitates all this and charges each individual around $A10,000. She gets paid in instalments until all that is paid and the workers get a free PR. Maybe the Australian authorities need to investigate this scam.

Information that might identify the woman has been withheld for legal reasons - KJ

Exploitation is widespread - and it's not just the Pacific Worker Scheme. My wife had replied to a local job ad to work as a cleaner at our local club. After 10 days work she was paid just $55.

That's about $2 an hour. The award rate is $21 an hour.

The Fair Work Ombudsman is investigating.

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