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Vanuatu nationals on the run in Australia speak out

A group of Vanuatu nationals who have absconded while working under the seasonal worker program in Australia have apologised for running away but want their reasons for their actions to be heard.

They claimed via a letter sent to the Vanuatu Government that they were not treated properly and they were being exploited. These workers are still in Australia and have not returned home.

The Vanuatu Government’s concern is that this action will obstruct the chances of other workers planning to leave for seasonal work, however these workers believe the bigger issue is the exploitation.

Only a week ago, Australian foreign minister Penny Wong promised a crackdown on exploitation of Pacific labour workers as the plight of some workers has been highlighted.

In a letter handed to Vanuatu Commissioner of Labour, Murielle Meltenoven on July 13, the workers claimed that conditions were contradicting what was agreed to in the initial contract.

They have made a plea to their government and the government of Australia to look into the matter and hold people accountable.

The workers have asked the authorities to review the deductions which leave them without any money to send back home and to fend for themselves whilst working in Australia.

The deductions in the weekly salary include accommodation, utilities, health care, welfare of workers and contractors’ transportations.

Four to five seasonal workers are made to live in one room while they are told to pay as much AU$200 each.

They have claimed that at times when contracts are prematurely ended there is no support mechanism in place to help the workers.

They claimed some workers were asked to take their belongings and leave the property without any notice or help by the contractors involved.

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These Vanuatu nationals had earlier absconded and applied for asylum in Australia. This caused an outrage in Vanuatu and Labour Commissioner Ms Meltenoven had called on them to return and contact the Vanuatu embassy.

A group of Vanuatu nationals who have absconded while working under the seasonal worker program in Australia have apologised for running away but want their reasons for their actions to be heard. Picture: Shutterstock

“In our desperate state to seek help, most of us have reached out to the Vanuatu High Commissioner in Canberra. To date, he has not responded to either our calls or emails. We are very disappointed at the lack of communication from our High Commissioner,” the Vanuatu workers have said.

“We hope that with this letter, you will have a better understanding as to why we did what we did and for you to listen to our concerns.

“Please bear in mind that we are happy to work, we are just not happy with the mistreatments and hope that you (Labour Commissioner) can implement steps to improve the scheme between Vanuatu and Australia.”

The exploitation of workers is a rare occurrence and not widespread. Most seasonal workers are able to enjoy the full bounty of their labour however there have been extreme cases where the Pacific community in Australia have had to rescue workers.

The Australian National Union has also called on authorities to look at the exploitation of seasonal workers.

A group of seasonal workers from Fiji who also claimed to have been exploited have filed a lawsuit against the company that contracted them.

Crackdown on Pacific worker exploitation – 15 July 2022

Exploitation of Pacific workers under the seasonal worker program is continuing to happen in Australia and the new government says they will crack down on it.

Seasonal workers filling a bin on an apple farm. Exploitation of Pacific workers under the seasonal worker program is continuing to happen in Australia and the new government says they will crack down on it. Picture: Supplied

Scores of Pacific people are part of the seasonal schemes which deal with unemployment issues in the region and at the same time allow a solution for labour shortages in key Australian industries.

The exploitation is not a widespread issue however, it continues to happen in some parts of Australia where seasonal workers are concerned.

The Australian Government is not happy with the reports of exploitation, with Australian foreign minister Penny Wong committing to look into concerns of the workers.

“We are a Labor government….a government that has a very strong ethical and philosophical commitment to ensuring workers are not exploited. We’ve made some changes,” she said.

“We will make more changes. We looked at this a lot in Opposition. You can’t guarantee everything but I can say to you we work very hard to make sure that we crack down on exploitation.”

The Pacific labourers are hired by recruiting companies for whom profit remains key. Airfares, accommodation and transportation to and from work are deducted from their weekly pay.

Seasonal workers in Queensland Australia. Exploitation of Pacific workers under the seasonal worker program is continuing to happen in Australia and the new government says they will crack down on it. Pic- Supplied

The workers in some cases are not paid at an hourly rate but by bins (of produce collected). This leads to a situation where the deductions are far greater than what is earned.

A recent case was highlighted by The Pacific Advocate. The problem is a similar one to what some Pacific workers were going through in 2016 in Victoria.

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The workers had signed contracts which showed deductions and the advance that would be given to them, because most of them believed that they would be paid in excess of AU$800.

A payslip for a seasonal worker who is being exploited. Pic- Supplied
A payslip for a seasonal worker who is being exploited. The new Australian Government says they will crack down on exploitation. Pic- Supplied

A temporary deduction which covers visa fees, airfares and advance cash totals $AUD1700, while there is a weekly deduction of $AUD228 for nine months that covers accommodation, health insurance and transport.

According to their contracts, at $25.41 per hour each worker is set to receive between AU$800-$900 a week after tax. That was the illusion sold to some of these workers.

Exploitation of Pacific workers under the seasonal worker program is continuing to happen in Australia and the new government says they will crack down on it. Pic- Anthony Albanese Twitter

Most workers endure the treatment because many hope to return under the scheme for employment, while some are threatened that they would be sent back to home nations without ever having a chance to return.

While the Australian Government is making legislative changes, a group of workers supported by Pacific people residing in Australia have started work towards filing a class action law suit against companies which have exploited workers.

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