Spotlight on: Exploitation of Seasonal Workers in Australia
Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA Labour Migration and Pacific Region Organiser, Jill Biddington, writes that Australia must act to prevent the exploitation of seasonal workers from the Pacific.
Australia’s Pacific Labour Scheme must be more closely scrutinised. Because of a lack of regulation, the Pacific Labour Scheme allows exploitative treatment of migrant workers that meets the definition of modern slavery.
This exploitation includes unreasonable accommodation charges and other levies. In addition to benefiting from the lower costs of employment, employers may also unjustly profit through charging workers for rent.
Although there is pressure to prevent hostels from overcharging temporary migrants through legislation, there are no restrictions on companies leasing houses to then sub-let the rooms to their employees at a profit.
Profiting from seasonal workers accommodation
In one case in the regional NSW town of Inverell, seasonal workers were charged $150 dollars per week to sleep on couches. The average cost of a four-bedroom home in Inverell is $450 dollars, but this employer was pocketing $1,350 dollars by renting out the accommodation to nine seasonal workers.
This can only be described as gouging costs from seasonal workers – or perhaps it is a new kind of wage theft. Workers who come to Australia are routinely charged for the associated costs of their migration, but there is often no transparency.
Workers warned not to complain
One group of Samoan workers who worked in regional Victoria said they had to pay $50 per week for transport to the local farm, which was less than ten kilometres from their accommodation. When they asked about the costs, they were warned to not complain. This was raised with Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA by the Samoan Workers Congress, which is concerned by the lack of transparency in seasonal worker employment conditions.
Partnering with Pacific unions to defend the rights of seasonal workers
The Samoa First Union is creating networks of seasonal workers, and it is representing their concerns to Samoan decision-makers. To expand the reach of their organising, the Samoan Workers Congress President, Tili Afamasaga, is lobbying the Samoan Government and the Ministry of Labour to educate departing workers about their rights while working abroad.
Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA works in solidarity with Pacific unions to promote union membership to the seasonal workers. There has been excellent work undertaken by the United Workers’ Union (UWU) where they have invested in systematic organising of farm workers many of whom are drawn from the Pacific Islands under Australia’s temporary migration programs.
Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA is identifying organisations that are committed to systematic organising and education of temporary migrant workers. There are ten countries involved in these schemes, bringing workers to Australia from Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
The behaviour of exploitative employers, and the silence and inaction of governments and regulators, has created another underclass of exploited workers in Australia, from impoverished Pacific countries which are so dependent on the remittances home, from work in Australia. These pressures are only increasing under the economic situation created by COVID19, and so full education of migrant workers pre-departure, union membership and government enforcement to prevent exploitation and slavery will go a long way to protecting workers coming to Australia.
The Global Justice Organisation of the Australian Union Movement
The work of Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA relies on the efforts of thousands of Australian unionists and internationalists who raise funds, volunteer, and take action to build solidarity across borders.