Some Pacific Islander workers say they feel like they are being “treated like slaves” as fruit pickers in Australia under the Seasonal Worker Programme.
For Samoan man Alex Muese, arriving in Australia to work was a dream come true.
Mr Muese, 34, carries great responsibility as he cares for eight children, his wife and her parents.
When he received his Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) visa, he thought he would earn an hourly wage to support his family in Samoa.
“I was excited, thinking that it’s going to help me get some money to help me with raising my family, my village and my church,” Mr Muese told SBS News, through a Samoan interpreter.
But four months into his role as a fruit picker at a farm in eastern Victoria, he said he and his 21 fellow workers are “treated like slaves”, squeezed into small, squalid living quarters.
Initially believing they would be paid $25 an hour on a five-day working basis, these conditions changed when Mr Muese and his peers arrived at work. They are now being paid a piece rate with unpredictable hours.
Mr Muese said they were made to sign contracts in English, despite not understanding the language, and were not provided with an interpreter to understand the terms.
Mr Muese would end up earning $300 as his net pay after working 73 hours in one week.
His colleague, Koneferenisi Maiava, picked strawberries for 73 hours another week – and he earned only $100.
“The way we are made to work through the heat of the sun or rain, without rest, we feel like we are being treated like slaves,” Mr Muese said.
Instead of providing funds for his family like he planned, he is now doing his best to survive in Australia on his own.
Do these conditions amount to ‘modern slavery’?
Fed up with the lack of accountability from their employers, the Pacific Islander workers in eastern Victoria said they had enough.
Mr Muese and fellow Samoan colleague Talipope Kalolo, 29, fronted this week’s Senate hearing on job security, outlining the exploitative conditions they had been subjected to.
“We were so happy and pleased to be the representatives of all the workers to argue and seek justice in the Australian Parliament House,” Mr Kalolo told SBS News.
Associate professor of modern slavery at the University of Notre Dame Martijn Boersma conceded that the term ‘modern slavery’ is often used incorrectly by many people.
But after hearing the testimonies of Mr Muese, Mr Kalolo and others at the inquiry, he said “there is good reason to use the term [modern slavery]”.
“There are two elements to an employment relationship that once those start to become curbed, you start to move towards a situation that can be characterised as slavery,” Associate Professor Boersma told SBS News.
“Those two elements are voice – the capacity of workers to speak up and object to the work conditions that they’re being subjected to.
“The other element is exit – their capacity to exit an employment relationship if they feel like they’re not being treated decently.”
He said many of these Pacific Islander workers were using their wages to pay off their flight and visa fee – and to voice their concerns or leave their employer was “simply not an option”, in fear of living in debt or bringing shame to their families back home.
One of the conditions of the SWP is that workers are bound to the employer that has hired them unless they can provide evidence of unreasonable working conditions.
“But that seems to be an unreasonable onus that’s been put on to the seasonal worker to provide proof,” Associate Professor Boersma said.
Reforms are coming
The federal government launched the SWP in 2012 to provide temporary employment opportunities for Pacific Islander and Timorese workers within Australia’s agricultural industry during busy, seasonal periods.
While those working within the SWP are provided with the same employee rights as other Australians, workers are often hired privately by labour hire companies that may take advantage of them.
Last November, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne announced that the SWP and the Pacific Labour Scheme will be merged into one singular framework visa, called the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme.
The PALM scheme will come into force in April 2022 and, according to DFAT, will better protect worker wellbeing and provide greater flexibility for staff to move to different employers.
At the parliamentary inquiry on job security on Thursday, Nationals senator Matt Canavan said aspects of the Pacific labour program are akin to indentured labour.
DFAT assistant secretary Helen McCormack, who oversees the Pacific labour operation branch, confirmed to the inqiury that wanting to change jobs for better pay is not an accepted reason for employees in the program to exit and find a new employer.
“It does sound like indentured labour, then. There’s no competition,” Mr Canavan said, to which Ms McCormack responded in the affirmative. “Yeah,” she said.
A spokesperson for DFAT said in a statement to SBS News that the “vast majority of Pacific workers have a positive experience working in Australia and send earnings back home to their families and communities”.
“The Australian government does not tolerate the exploitation of any worker and is committed to ensuring all workers can make a positive contribution to the Australian economy, and their home communities, without fear of exploitation,” the spokesperson added.
“DFAT was concerned to hear of the experiences described by workers who participate, and have participated, in the PALM scheme at … [the] Senate Inquiry into Job Security.”
“The department takes all reports of non-compliance seriously and following [the workers’] testimonies, continues its ongoing work to investigate all allegations that we become aware of.”
Associate Professor Boersma said he believes stricter reforms should be put in place to override the existing “structural limitations” that place workers in unscrupulous working conditions.
“If you have the same rights and recourse that you could pursue if you are being exploited, then I think we take away those structural elements that create these hotbeds of exploitation,” he said.
As the PALM scheme is set to launch in April, Mr Muese said he is hoping to see employer complaints taken seriously, and a simple avenue to be transferred to a different workplace if he is treated unfairly.
But Mr Kalolo said his negative experiences have tainted any prospect of continuing to work in Australia.
“I’d be better off going back [to Samoa] and doing some development or plantation work,” he said.
“I’m definitely very heartbroken about this whole thing.”
This article was originally published by SBS News.