CANBERRA, AAP – Supermarket shelves are filled with fruit and vegetables but the people who harvest them are sometimes being paid just $100 for a 64-hour work week.
On Wednesday, seasonal workers detailed exploitation at the hands of employers approved to run migrant worker programs by the federal government.
Yet the departments responsible for facilitating the program claim it is heavily regulated and farms are audited to detect and stop instances of exploitation.
The three workers from Vanuatu and two from Samoa moved to Australia to take part in a Pacific labour scheme designed to address workforce shortages in rural and regional areas.
They told a parliamentary committee into job security they had intended to support their families back home, where the economies have been impacted by the pandemic.
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But their experience in Australia has been marked by squalid accommodation, bullying, exploitative working conditions and a lack of access to support services, the workers told the inquiry hearing.
They said they are working 64 hours a week but earn just $100 after employer deductions which are not explained on their pay slips.
Despite originally being offered a set hourly rate, they arrived in Australia to find they would be paid per tray of fruit picked, the workers said.
“We are here, we work for the farms, we are part of (Australia’s) economic development so we should be treated the same as Australians,” said Moses, a seasonal worker from Vanuatu.
“If you walk around the supermarket and you see all the beautiful fruits and vegetables, it is because of us. We contribute a lot.”
Samoan worker Talipope told the committee he did not earn enough to support himself in Australia let alone his family.
“It would have been better to just stay home, especially with the bad conditions here,” he said.
Talipope shares a small room and bathroom with four others and shares a kitchen with 60 others, with no fans or air conditioning.
He pays $150 a week for this accommodation which was organised by his employer.
Solicitor and advocate Dana Levitt says the employers are making up their own rules and getting workers to sign exploitative contracts which are not translated into their own language.
“Nothing in these contracts would stand up as legal in Australia and yet it is going unchecked,” she said.
“The whole scheme is rife with abuse and no one is doing anything about it.”
Representatives from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade say approved employers in the scheme are subject to strict conditions for employing workers and can be audited any time.
But the department acknowledged there were problems with the program.
“We work closely with high commissions of each country in the scheme to understand and correct the challenges,” DFAT representative Danielle Heinecke told the committee.
She said the department would take on board the worker’s stories to inform future conditions for employers.
Chair of the National Agricultural Labour Advisory Committee John Azarias says the problems in the season worker schemes were addressable but will take time.
Yet Australian Workers Union national secretary Daniel Walton says Australia’s reputation has been smashed worldwide because of the conditions of the farms.
“The government priorities seem to be nothing short of finding more opportunities to allow more employees (into Australia) with less protections and less support,” he told the hearing.
“Workers came to Australia expecting to get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work … and they’ve turned up and it has not happened.”