Pacific diplomats including a prominent high commissioner have exposed loopholes in an Australian government scheme that has targeted the bulk of the 13,000 seasonal farm workers in the country.
The exploitation of wages for unsolicited deductions has forced the devastated Pacific workforce to snitch on their employers and seek legal advice.
Vanuatu workers were the most vulnerable to the exploitation from several Australian labour hire companies that could jeopardise the future of the government low-skilled seasonal work program.
Levitt Robinson lawyers claim the weekly wages of their clients, which the firm is representing for no fee, is dropping from around $900 to $300 from several deductions.
“Some of the Pacific island groups had contacted to tell me what was happening, including one of the high commissioners that will remain nameless,” lawyer Stewart Levitt said.
“We met with some diplomats from other Pacific countries and that they all had the same view.”
The litigation lawyer for the workers is proposing a class action over ripping off the wages.
Hundreds of dollars have been withdrawn from pay packets for gratuitous costs that include rent, flights, visas, work clothing, health insurance, daily transport between farms, even water bottles.
Each worker is forced to surrender $200 a week to live in accommodation that many of the labour hire companies own that turn out be either old shipping containers or “overcrowded” dormitories.
“Whether there is a class action or not will depend on whether we have the Pacific islanders with the intestinal fortitude to stand up for themselves and be counted,” Mr Levitt said.
“We have got the evidence and we have the ammunition to fire.
“We just need some people that are prepared to identify with a cause.
“But there is a lot to be gained just from exposing it.”
This has not been an isolated case after workers from Vanuatu first told a similar story in 2017.
More than half of the 22 men employed in an identical government seasonal work program failed to receive a cent from their time on farms.
“I’ve found the whole thing so reprehensible that this is another example of the ratbaggery of some of the people that lead us (in Australia) that I needed to do something about,” Mr Levitt said.
Mr Levitt has been recognised for his human-rights work on a number of cases involving Indigenous cultures, who have had running battles with the Australian government.
Plans of the government to bring a further 27,000 Pacific workers to fill holes in Australia’s labour market after the past 18 months of the Covid-19 pandemic could affect a predicted bumper season.
The agricultural industry is worth more than $70 billion.
Farmers are at the mercy of labour hire companies to provide more seasonal workers.
Mr Levitt alleges that those farmers who simply refuse to exploit Pacific labour are left with higher overheads than their competitors.
“The government encourages, aids, abets and protects the labour hire companies, and some of the farmers that take advantage of it,” he said.
“The majority of the farmers do, but certainly not all.”
Mr Levitt said it has left a stain on Australia’s reputation in the Pacific that includes the treatment of asylum seekers.
The practice has been compared to blackbirding that involved the coercion of 19th century South Seas Islanders through either kidnapping or deception to work in Australia as slaves or poorly paid labourers.
“They haven’t been forced into work this time, but they have been tricked into staying,” Mr Levitt said.