A Federal Parliamentary Inquiry into Allegations of Worker Abuse Hears Reports of ‘Dreadful’ Working Conditions

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Aleki (Samoa), Talipope (Samoa), Jane Smith, Lazare (Vanuatu), Moses (Vanuatu), Geoffrey Smith, Sergio (Vanuatu). 📷 Alex Ellinghausen, Sydney Morning Herald.

Thursday 10 February 2022. An Australian federal parliamentary inquiry into allegations of worker abuse under the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) and the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) has heard reports of ‘dreadful’ working conditions imposed on Pacific Island workers by some Australian employers.

The Senate Select Committee on Job Security was appointed by resolution of the Senate on 10 December 2020. Submissions were due to close on 2 December 2021, however, in October last year the Senate agreed to extend the presentation of its final report to the last sitting day in February 2022 – scheduled for today, 10 February 2022.

Talipope Kalolo and the interpreter Lieta Sauiluma Duggan giving evidence at Senate Select Committee, Canberra.

Video footage of live coverage during committee interviews last week have been shared widely on social media by the Pasifika community, showing Samoa and Vanuatu workers as well as a Christian missionary couple Geoffrey and Jane Smith, testifying to horrific living conditions, and unreasonable wage deductions.

Testimonies

Talipope Kalolo, 29, of Samoa told the Select Committee headed by Labour Senator Tony Sheldon, that sleep was impossible at night when he and his co-workers slept four people to a room, with no air-conditioning or fans in the summer heat.

“We get picked up at 4:30am, but we just lie there and struggle to go to sleep until it’s time to get up again”.

Talipope said when their group tested positive for Covid-19, the four of them were quarantined in their one-room living quarters with a weekly shopping that was not nearly enough to feed the four of them. “For the whole week we were given two toilet paper rolls, two soaps, one bottle of juice, one loaf of bread, two oranges, and four packets of saimin noodles.. for the four of us in this one small room.”

On their first week back after 10 days of quarantine, their deductions had included the two weeks they were in isolation. As an example, he said $150 had been deducted for transport – a cost that was normally $50 per person per week.

“So they took double to make up for the two weeks that we were sick and unable to work”, he said.

Live feed of Australia Senate Select Committee on Job Security – videos widely shared by Pasifika people on social media.

Another worker Aleki Muese, 34, told the select committee he carried a great responsibility to care for his wife and eight children back in Samoa.  Aleki believed they would be paid AUD$25 an hour on a five-day working basis, but those conditions changed when he and his peers arrived in Australia, and found they are being paid a piece rate with unpredictable hours. He said unknown deductions resulted in nett pay of $300 after working 73 hours one week.

“My colleague, Koneferenisi Maiava, picked strawberries for 73 hours another week – and he earned only $100. The way we are made to work through the heat of the sun or rain, without rest, we feel like we are being treated like slaves,” Mr Muese said. When he received his Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) visa, he thought he would earn an hourly wage to support his family in Samoa, however, he is barely making enough to survive in Australia.

Workers from Vanuatu also testified to staging a strike where they chose to stay at home, “because we came to Australia to work for money, not to work as a slave,” said a Vanuatu worker named Sergio who says he is fighting for his people in Australia. Sergio testified about working under the piece rate, picking 110 boxes of grapes a day for $2.50 per box, and receiving $100 dollars in his account.

“When I go to the bank and check my balance, I received only $70 dollars, and I always ask the medic, the employer, to give me a breakdown for the deduction, but he didn’t..”

“I feel very upset because I come here in Australia, and the people of Australia should treat me like the people of Australia,” Sergio told the Senate Select Committee. “That’s why I told my friends to cause the strike, and we stay home.”

Christian missionaries Geoff and Jane Smith told the inquiry their home was raided by Australian Border Force after housing and providing pastoral care to a Bundaberg worker, Lazare Mankon, who also gave evidence.  The couple’s solicitor, Dana Levitt of Levitt Robinson Solicitors, told the inquiry Mr Mankon was rendered unfit for work because he had a mental breakdown.

Open photo

“People aren’t allowed to be human, they’re not allowed to have feelings, and they’re not allowed to do anything that undercuts the profit margin,” said Ms Levitt, whose firm is said to be bringing on a class action on behalf of seasonal workers.

Samoa Government Response

During an interview with the ET Live programme this week, Samoa’s Minister of Commerce, Industry and Labour (MCIL) Leatinuu Faumuina Wayne Sooialo said he had sighted worker pay slips with horrific lists of deductions that when listed, would take up an entire page.

Leatinuu said Australia is known for its high standards of employer relations, but there are a few farmers that are treating Pacific workers unfairly with the application of the piece rate pay instead of the AUD$25 hourly rate that ought to be applied. This coupled with unreasonable deductions and poor living conditions has raised major concerns within Cabinet.

Samoa Minister of Commerce Industry and Labour, Leatinuu Wayne Sooialo on ET Live.

Samoa’s Labour Mobility Committee Chaired by Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mataafa and deputised by Leatinuu as the Labour Minister is now awaiting a full report on the situation in light of the publicly aired grievances, said Leatinuu.

Asked by the ET Live programme host Tui Eddie Taualapini if there would be any consequence to workers for speaking out, the Minster said there would be no such repercussions and encouraged workers to continue to speak out and air their concerns.

“Your work placement will not be affected, if there are concerns you need to tell us, speak out..  If anyone is worried about their job, then come directly to me,” said Samoa’s Labour Minister.

Hire Company and Berry Farm Deny Allegations

One of Australia’s largest labour hire companies, MADEC Australia, has denied allegations it paid a worker just $70 for a week’s work. The firm was named by Sergio and other Vanuatu workers in their testimonies.

The SWP issues are not new in Australia.

Four years ago in 2017, the Sydney Morning Herald reported Vanuatu workers accusing MADEC of stopping them from joining the Australian Workers Union. Affidavits signed by several workers had alleged MADEC had pressured workers to quit the National Union of Workers. If they did not, they would be denied future employment, and workers from Vanuatu would not be recruited via the Seasonal Workers Program.

“If you want to come back [to Australia], you have to leave the union,” one worker said he had been told.

“I want to come back. I was scared of his words. So were others and some people resigned from the union that day.”

At the time, MADEC distributed resignation form to 145 workers to complete and hand in to the union – a clear breach of Australian laws that protect freedom of association.

MADEC’s Chief Executive Laurence Burt told Fairfax Media at the time, that a “misunderstanding” had led to the distribution of the union resignation forms and that the company had taken urgent steps to assure its migrant workers they could join a union and exercise workplace rights.

“We are proud of our record in exposing bad practices in the industry,” said Mr Burt of the not-for-profit labour hire firm that has recruited thousands of overseas workers for farmers, including via the SWP.

One of the businesses accused in last weeks Senate hearing of subjecting Pacific Island workers to “dreadful” conditions is Melbourne agri-tourism business Sunny Ridge, a berry farm with locations on the Mornington Peninsula and in the Yarra Valley.

Sunny Ridge Australia has issued a statement denying all allegations against them, calling on the Senate Committee to correct the public record, and singling out the Sydney Morning Herald article that reported inquiry testimonies including those of Samoan workers, Aleki Muese and Talipope Kalolo.

The public statement by Sunny Ridge states the allegations are fundamentally incorrect, as was the naming of the company.  “You may be aware that there is a Senate inquiry into Job Security in which a small number of seasonal workers are participating and providing statements..

“This has led to the release of an entirely false and misleading newspaper article in the Sydney Morning Herald suggesting underpayment of workers and the incorrect naming of Sunny Ridge as the employer.  The allegations are fundamentally incorrect and the Company has already provided written evidence to the senate Committee which demonstrates the falsity of the allegations,” reads the statement.

Australia Announces Reforms – Streamlines SWP and PLS into PALM

Last November, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne announced the Seasonal Workers Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme will be merged into one singular framework visa, called the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme.

The PALM scheme will come into force in April 2022 and, according to DFAT, will better protect worker wellbeing and provide greater flexibility for staff to move to different employers.

Australia says it will double the number of Pacific Workers in Australia under the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme – for both SWP and PLS. “By March 2022, an additional 12,500 workers will be brought in to work in critical industries such as agriculture, hospitality, and aged care. This includes 10,000 under the SWP and 2,500 under the PLS”.

Samoa’s Labour Minister says seasonal workers already tagged to depart Samoa in February and March will leave as planned, however, Cabinet will monitor the situation closely and could consider removing Samoa as a beneficiary country to the scheme, quoting labour drainage of skilled workers such as teachers being impacted by the programme.