Pacific Island nationals brought to Australia under a workforce scheme to bolster regional economic and diplomatic ties have abandoned the programme by a nearly 10-fold increase in the past five years, with some complaining of racking up debt while languishing for months without work.
While employers accuse the government of aiding the black market because of the low numbers of visas being cancelled after labourers abscond from farms, workers are being left without enough money to feed themselves, leaving charities to step in.
One worker from Vanuatu said after more than two months without work in northern Tasmania last year, he and his team pooled money to buy two fishing rods between 12 of them to feed themselves.
“We went down to a bridge at Devonport and stayed there for hours,” the worker, who spoke under the condition he was not named. “We basically had to go fishing every day.”
The federal government will mandate workers under the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) Scheme receive at least 30 hours of work every week to avoid their pay being swallowed by deductions for accommodation, transport and airfares.
Farmers say it will cause them to shun the programme, which employs more than 35,000 Pacific Islanders across the country.
The scheme has played an important role in the Albanese government’s push to scale up Pacific diplomacy to stabilise the region and boost international security. The government has promoted the economic benefits the workplace program provides by “lifting families out of poverty” when workers bring home hefty pay packets.
But figures provided by the Department of Home Affairs show 147 seasonal workers brought to Australia under the government’s horticultural schemes absconded during the 2018-19 financial year, skyrocketing to 2,148 in 2021-22. This financial year, 1,438 workers had absconded by the end of March.
The data shows 4,811 workers were reported as having absconded in the last five years, the majority (4,507) during the last three years. Only 144 people had their visas cancelled in those three years.
A departmental spokesperson said one of the reasons workers left was due to lack of work, but the number of people leaving their employer without permission was proportionately low.
“The impact of COVID-19 is likely to have been a key driver in increased disengagement rates, given competition amongst employers for labour coupled with misinformation driven by onshore facilitators,” the spokesperson said.
This masthead has seen email correspondence indicating one employer physically held onto workers’ visas earlier this year to reduce the risk of them absconding.
Steve Burdette, the executive officer of labour contractors’ association Approved Employers Australia, said workers were being lured away by operators offering conditions “too good to be true”.
Burdette said approved operators had often reported to the government where the workers were.
“We haven’t heard a thing,” he said. “It’s encouraging the black trade of illegal workers and operators.”
The Vanuatu worker, who is now placed at a farm in South Australia, said many people from his 105-person work group in Tasmania had abandoned their workplace due to lack of hours, which he also contemplated doing.
“At one stage when we were without work, I even got in contact with the men who had run away,” he said. “There was no one we could turn to.”
Natasha Jordan, the Tasmanian director of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, said the charity had provided food and clothing to a separate cohort of Pacific workers in the state’s north earlier this year.
“They literally hadn’t eaten,” she said. “They had no money and, because they had not worked, they had no money and no food.”
A Samoan worker on her second stint in Australia, and who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said her initial group went from 40 workers to eight: many left because they were not being given enough work.
“Everyone knew the reason why we left home and came here to earn money and help our families back home,” she said. “When we don’t have hours at work that means we don’t have enough money to send home.”
This masthead has seen the payslip for one worker who received just more than $5 (US$3.30) from a 19-hour work week, after a number of deductions were made.
Australian Workers Union acting national secretary Stacey Schinnerl said workers were charged “ridiculous rent for the privilege of staying in accommodation that would be actually considered inhumane by international standards”.
“PALM workers need protection against these rorts. They must not be asked to pay for the bare basics of arriving and working in Australia, nor should they be restricted from moving between employers, provided the normal notice is provided,” Schinnerl said.
Fruit pickers in a northern NSW town were late last year allegedly paying $175 (US$116) a week to bunk together in converted shipping containers in a caravan park that the state’s workplace safety watchdog in April slapped with 14 improvement notices, which has the subject of complaints by locals and a council investigation.
Australian Workers’ Union NSW state secretary Tony Callinan said, “I’ve seen better living conditions in third-world countries than I did last year … There were people cooking in electrical frying pans on the ground.”
The operator didn’t respond to questions, but said the site was compliant.
United Workers Union national secretary Tim Kennedy said the government’s mandate of minimum hours, taking effect from 2024, was “a huge improvement for workers that currently struggle with low hours and low earnings and can end up having little to show for their time working in Australia when they return to their home countries.”
Richard Shannon, executive officer to the National Farmers Federation’s horticulture council, said earlier this month the changes would prompt farmers to walk away from the scheme in favour of backpacker labour.
“The return of backpackers to pre-COVID numbers has not gone unnoticed by employers. Growers are readying themselves to walk away in big numbers,” he said.