The lure of the Seasonal Worker Program in Australia appeals to many Pacific islanders.
Why wouldn’t it? When you are earning less than AU$2 an hour in your home nation and you have a chance to earn around AU$24 an hour for 40 hours a week for nine months, any Pacific islander would take the chance.
Success stories from the Seasonal Worker Programs include people returning to build homes they could only dream of, investing into businesses and establishing futures for their families.
While the majority of Pacific islanders have success working on farms picking fruit and vegetables, there are those still being exploited.
A former Fijian journalist living in Queensland, Sikeli Qounadovu has become the ears of some of these workers, who are distraught as they are unable to send money home because they are receiving as low as zero dollars – that’s right, zero – in their weekly pay packets.
Mr Qounadovu said while most workers are fairly treated, there are some still being exploited.
The problem is a similar one to what some Pacific workers were going through in 2016 in Victoria.
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 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.
“Some of us are only working two days a week. How can we take care of ourselves let alone our families back home who rely on us, and there’s 25 of us,” said a Fijian worker, who does not want to be named because he hopes to make future trips.
“Some of us have had to change work environment and move from farm to farm. By the end of the week and after all deductions some of us are just left with $50.”
Australian labour laws are being violated blatantly because some workers are being paid by the number of bins collected, a complete contradiction to the law and the contract they signed.
“Eighty dollars a bin and we can fill only five to six bins a day. Imagine that being shared by the more than 10 of us who each have our own families,” said another worker.
There is no time and a half or double rate given when some of these workers are called to work on the weekend.
These workers in Queensland have been signed by a company called MADEC.
When David Williams, the company’s account manager was questioned, he said he had no idea (of the situation). A further email was sent to him but there has been no response.
Fiji’s Ministry of Employment permanent secretary Osea Cawaru has been informed of the exploitation of Fijians under the Seasonal Worker Program. He said they would look into it.
An email has also been sent to Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong.
The Seasonal Worker Program is a way out of poverty for many unemployed Pacific islanders and the new Australian government has said there would be more opportunities.
The Australian government must investigate how Pacific islanders can be treated as cheap slave labour, bonded into contracts and living in constant fear of being sent back home, never to be able to work in such a program again.
Many have families that depend on them. Such cases are not prevalent but are still happening.