Twenty-nine people in the Pacific Labour Mobility Scheme (PALM) have died in the last financial year, making it the deadliest period in the history of the expanding scheme, according to government data.

The fourfold rise came as participant numbers reached an all-time high amid an increasing reliance on Pacific workers in the Australian agriculture and meat industries.

According to data from the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR), as of 30 June 2023, PALM visa holder deaths more than quadrupled from 2021-2022 to 2022-23, with seven deaths and 29 deaths recorded respectively.

Although there was a significant increase in the number of PALM participants, the figures still showed a 0.05 percent rise in fatalities, and the data also revealed there were 233 critical incidents resulting in PALM worker injuries in the last three years.

The department noted the deaths and injuries were not necessarily related to the participant’s engagement in the scheme.

The figures came to light on October 24 in a question-on-notice response from the department to senator Tony Sheldon in the Senate Standing Committees on Education and Employment, seeking exact figures on fatalities and deaths in the PALM scheme.

“Of the 29 PALM scheme worker deaths in 2022-23, one occurred at the workplace and is under investigation by the relevant workplace safety authority,” DEWR said in response to questions from ABC.

“Of the 17 deaths outlined in the question-on-notice that are currently under investigation … 16 are being investigated by the relevant coroner in relation to the cause of death.”

“The department is committed to improving its oversight and understanding of the diverse and interrelated factors surrounding injury, illness and mortality amongst PALM workers in Australia, and in delivering targeted, effective preventative measures.

“No further information can be provided, as to do so could compromise ongoing investigations and/or the privacy of individuals.”

The number of Pacific Islanders working in the scheme has more than tripled in the last three years with almost 40,000 long and short-term visa holders currently working in Australia.

The scheme’s expansion is part of the government’s bid to increase regional stability through economic and personal connections with the Pacific.

However, reports of poor working conditions and exploitation have long plagued the program, which has prompted the government to tidy it up.

In 2022, the government introduced several reforms, guaranteeing minimum weekly take-home pay of $200(US$135) and 30 hours of work a week, while other recent legislation criminalised forms of migrant worker exploitation and increased penalties for non-compliance.

Jonathan Cook, a national organiser at the Australian Workers Union (AWU), said the union had long called for regular disclosure of fatality and injury numbers in the scheme.

“Now the data has been released, it’s exactly what we feared,” he said.

“These shocking figures are a powerful reminder of the need for reform.”

The AWU supports PALM workers in the horticulture industry to understand and exercise their rights, and Cook said they heard the same stories of abuse across the country.

“I think the vast majority of Australians would be absolutely shocked and appalled if they had seen half the things that our union have seen,” he said.

“The only reason it’s not a full-blown national scandal is that the abuse and exploitation happens out of sight and out of mind for most.”

Cook said that while there had been several positive reforms in the past year, the DEWR needed more “boots on the ground” to enforce the new guidelines.

“But more needs to be done to prevent injuries and exploitation before it happens,” he said.

“The only way to improve health outcomes for PALM workers is for them to get access to the same healthcare as any other Australian worker … if we don’t get the settings right it won’t be sustainable and one of the changes that must happen is giving workers access to Medicare.”

Polling in a new report from the Australia Institute found 68 percent of Australians agreed PALM visa holders should have access to Medicare while in Australia.

Dr Alexia Adhikari is calling for the recommendations in her report to be implemented.

PALM workers do not currently have access to social security like Medicare while they are employed in Australia, although a trial is set to begin in 2024 which will see 200 workers and their families given access.

DEWR figures showed there were 10 deaths due to medical conditions and 233 injuries in the past three years, raising questions about whether workers were able to access the medical care they needed.

Dr Alexia Adhikari, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Australia Institute and one of the report’s authors, said Australia should be “doing everything we can to ensure the health and safety” of PALM visa participants.

“These unsettling [fatality and injury] figures show just why it is so important that Medicare be extended to all PALM visa holders,” she said.

The report makes several recommendations including giving workers the right to change employers, making employers pay for visa and on-arrival costs, and cracking down on unfair and illegal deductions from their paycheques.

It also found an increasing reliance on Pacific workers, with 23 percent of the meat and meat product manufacturing industry workforce and 10 per cent of the agriculture workforce being PALM scheme participants.

The Australian Institute report noted the increasing reliance was “just the latest attempt to avoid dealing with poor labour conditions in certain Australian industries, particularly agriculture”

Dr Adhikari said improving labour conditions would benefit not only PALM workers, “but anyone who works in these industries”.

“So we really need to draw attention to the fact that this programme is growing, labour conditions have to be improved to help stop exploitation,” she said.

Regional Workforce Management (RWM), a Queensland labour-hire company also known as FIP Group, had a significantly higher number of fatalities, nine, and injuries, 109, than other employers in the scheme.

The company is one of the largest employers in the scheme, with approximately 15 per cent of the Pacific workforce.

In a statement to ABC, acting CEO Tracy King said the company took the health and safety of workers “extremely seriously”.

“We implement rigorous education programmes for all individuals who participate in the Palm Scheme,” she said.

“This includes induction programmes for all workers, toolbox talks, health and safety meetings and task-specific training.

“In the past three years, one employee fatality occurred in a workplace. This was a tragedy and support was provided to the impacted family and the workplace community.

“A further eight fatalities were the result of events occurring outside the workplace, and support measures were also provided to impacted families and the workplace communities,” she said.