Immigrant seasonal workers abscond amid ‘slave labour’ claims
Originally published on The Australian, written by Stephen Rice
Australia’s Seasonal Worker Program is in crisis, with at least 1200 Pacific Island workers absconding from their employers over the past year, more than five times the number the previous year, as key sectors of the agriculture industry face catastrophic labour shortages.
The federal government is so alarmed at the level of absconding that it has launched an aggressive campaign warning islanders – many from Vanuatu – that their families and villages may be penalised in retaliation.
The unprecedented rates of absconding follow allegations of rampant exploitation, abuse and wage theft from seasonal workers revealed by The Australian on Thursday, with some seasonal workers losing more than two thirds of their pay in deductions by labour hire companies.
Some of the 13,000 seasonal workers brought to Australia as farm workers on the promise of wages of $900 a week are left with less than $300 a week to pay for basic items such as food after excessive deductions for accommodation, transport and even water containers.
Figures obtained by The Australian show that 1181 Seasonal Worker Program employees were reported as absconding by their “approved employers” – usually labour hire companies – in the past financial year. The year before, 225 absconded; five years ago, only 117.
Employers claim some workers are simply breaching their contracts and visa conditions in order to move to better-paying jobs, taking advantage of labour shortages exacerbated by the pandemic.
But advocates for the workers say they are running from exploitative conditions. They say some – labour hire companies are selling their workers on to other farmers willing to pay a higher price and then pocket the difference, with most islanders too afraid of being deported to complain.
The payslips and contracts of dozens of seasonal workers seen by The Australian do not suggest any additional benefit flowing to the workers, who are obliged to continue working at set rates for their approved employers under the terms of their visa.
In response to the spiralling number of absconders, the federal government’s Pacific Labour Facility has distributed posters warning workers who run away from their employers that, in addition to having their visas cancelled, their families and community members may be denied work in Australia.
The advertisements, which feature a distraught black man holding his hands to his face, have been condemned as racist and intimidatory by human rights lawyers and South Sea islander advocates.
One poster circulating in Queensland rural areas, warns absconders: “You may bring shame to your family’s reputation.”
Human rights advocates have branded the campaign “racist and scaremongering”.
Lawyer Stewart Levitt, who is preparing a class action against labour hire companies on behalf of seasonal workers, said Australia was invoking its own version of the US Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
“The Australian government is engaging in the worst form of racism and intimidation,” he said.
A government spokesperson said the poster was developed “to inform workers about the risks of absconding, protect them from scams and prevent them from entering into situations that made them vulnerable to mistreatment”.