Frustrated seasonal workers in Australia say they’re “starting to feel like slaves” as they reveal payslips showing more than 90 per cent of their wages being deducted by their employers.
The fruit pickers, who travel from Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and other islands as part of the Pacific Island seasonal worker program, came to Australia with the dream of providing for their families back home, but some weeks find they have struggled to feed just themselves.
Payslips posted online and provided to Yahoo News Australia show hundreds of dollars deducted from workers’ wages to pay off airfares, accommodation and transport to work, as well as health insurance and visa costs.
One payslip shows $129.92 left over from a $1326 pay, while another shows the worker received just $120 after a 71-hour week.
Another payslip posted online by journalist Michael Field shows a berry farm worker taking home $101 from a $608 week.
Worker shared home with 16 colleagues
One worker arrived in Western Australia to pick grapes early last year and told Yahoo News he feels he would’ve been better off staying in his home country of Tonga.
“This is starting to feel like slavery rather than working for money,” the worker, who requested to stay anonymous, said.
“I thought I’d have a better life working here especially because the money here is good, so that can help my family more and provide for me and my partner.
“At first it seemed good but now it’s getting ridiculous from all the amounts taken off every week.”
He said some weeks he’s only working three days, and on those weeks his deductions consume about 75 per cent of his wage.
The WA worker was meant to return home in November, but due to Covid his return flight was cancelled and his visa extended.
“Hopefully we can be treated fairly and to also go home soon,” he said.
Another worker, from Samoa, described the shocking living conditions he was subjected to when picking mangoes in the Northern Territory in 2016.
Like others, the father of six came to Australia to earn money for his family back in Samoa.
“To develop my family and raise my children,” he said. “Paying the school fees, make them well educated.”
But he found himself living with 16 other workers in a four-bedroom house, sleeping four to a room.
He said each worker was being docked $161 each week for rent by their employer, labour hire company MADEC, bringing the total weekly rent paid for the house to $2,576.
According to realestate.com.au, the average weekly price for a four-bedroom home in the same area is $650.
MADEC Australia repeatedly declined to comment when questioned by Yahoo News about the amount of deductions, how they are calculated and the living arrangements of workers.
Conditions indicate labour exploitation
Alison Rahill, executive officer of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney’s Anti-Slavery Taskforce, said she’s witnessed the “substandard” living conditions for herself at a number of different employers.
“I didn’t ever visit somewhere that I would be comfortable sleeping, or any of my family or friends would feel comfortable sleeping," Ms Rahill told Yahoo News.
"One hundred per cent of the accommodation was substandard. You couldn’t get a decent night’s sleep.
“Grown men and women who are exhausted… you can’t sleep in a room of four people one metre away from each other and still be expected to do a 12-hour shift out in the heat.”
Ms Rahill said workers' lack of freedoms and the amount they depend on their employer could make them vulnerable to labour exploitation.
“Things like curfews, not being able to go into town on their day off, freedom of movement… working for little or no pay, that’s an indicator of labour exploitation.
“Things like not having anywhere to cook meals, lack of facilities for showering and lack of space to hang clothes up to dry.”
She added other workers in Australia get to go to work and get paid, while always having the right to leave.
“You’re not dependent on your employer to get access to your health insurance or access a doctor, you’re not dependent on your employer for where you live, you don’t have to tell your employer you’ve got a sore tooth, and can they make you an appointment… The number of dependencies make the worker vulnerable to labour exploitation.”
And as for the deductions in pay, Ms Rahill questioned the hundreds of dollars being deducted for flights and transport.
“There’s always a question around why the airfares are always the most expensive airfares,” she said, referencing one MADEC payslip that shows a $700 flight deduction.
Ms Rahill also pointed out the deductions being taken by employers for transport.
“I can run my family car on $50 a week and yet every single worker that gets on the minibus is paying $80 [per week]… A second-hand minibus can earn a contractor something like $3000 a week. Why should workers have to contribute to the profits of a labour hire company? It’s pretty outrageous.”
Ms Rahill said workers that have spoken out about the conditions in the past have been hit with “instant” threats that has seen them “put on the next flight home”.
“A lot of them get shocked at how bad it is, but once they’re here they’re kind of stuck here so they’ve got to stick it out,” she said.
Parliamentary inquiry into allegations of worker abuse
In February, a federal parliamentary inquiry into allegations of worker abuse in the Pacific Island program was held, where several workers shared stories of their experiences on farms around the country.
One Samoan worker described the conditions as “dreadful” and told the inquiry how one of his co-workers fainted in the heat while working one day but no one came to help.
“We came to Australia so that we could help our families back home… but at this stage we wish we just stayed at home."
Like many seasonal workers who come to Australia, Talipope wanted to be able to provide for himself and his family - in his case, back home in Samoa.
Instead, he faced unsafe conditions and rampant exploitation.
And the Morrison government is letting these workers be ripped off. pic.twitter.com/jBbOpWTefW
— Senator Tony Sheldon (@senator_sheldon) February 3, 2022
Another worker, named Sergio, told the inquiry he was paid just $70 by MADEC Australia for a week's work picking grapes in Mildura.
"I always ask MADEC... to give me the break down for the deduction, but he didn't," Sergio said.
"After four month(s) I feel very upset."
MADEC chief executive Laurence Burt told News Corp he disputed the evidence given by the workers.
New minimum wage to be introduced in April
In November, a minimum casual rate of pay of $25.41 an hour was secured by the Australian Workers Union.
A new minimum hourly rate for fruit pickers will come into force on April 28.
"It's fantastic that from April 28 fruit pickers will get some certainty about how much they should be legally paid for their labour — the union is counting the days," AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton said.
"For too long the farmers' lobby has seen fruit pickers as somehow beneath the usual standards offered to Australian workers. But the hard work of pickers deserves the same minimum wage dignity afforded to everyone else.
"Now at the end of each day every picker should be assured that their work netted at least $25.41 an hour. If not, their employer is stealing from them and breaking the law.”
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