Queensland’s agriculture industry has expressed outrage over the actions of rogue employers and labour-hire operators, following the revelation that 13 Pacific Islander’s have died working on the program since its inception in 2009.
Twelve of these deaths have happened since the program concluded its trial period and became official in 2012, with seven of the deaths occurring specifically in Queensland. In contrast, a similar program that has run in New Zealand for over a decade—and employed roughly four times the number of Pacific Island workers—has only recorded nine deaths in total.
A report published by the Courier-Mail has revealed that the Pacific Island nations are considering the possibility of scrapping the program, in response to accusations of extreme neglect and exploitative treatment bordering on slave labour.
The Pacific Island workers were allegedly subjected to squalid living conditions—including caravans and shipping containers—and severe underpayment, while often being left unable to feed themselves after working for hours in extreme heat. As a result of the deaths, many senior officials are now pushing to have the program axed if further lives are lost.
According to chairman of the Queensland Horticulture Council, Allan Mahoney, employers across the agriculture industry will suffer if the program is discontinued, with many relying on a constant influx to Pacific Island workers to staff their businesses.
“We’ve got some great stories with the Islander project around our region when they’re working direct for farms,” Mahoney said.
“But the guys that have fallen through the cracks and are caught by this element of contractors who shop them around.’’
The chief advocate for Growcom, Rachel Mackenzie, agreed with Mahoney’s assessment, calling the program “flawed” and in need of significant restructuring.
“There’s no enforcement down the line,” Mackenzie said.
The president of the Tonga Australia Season Workers Association, Falepaini Maile, also called for an urgent overhaul of program.
“There is so much secrecy and lack of transparency and accountability in the Seasonal Worker Program,” Maile said.
“For any improvement to occur, the program must improve its transparency and accountability. It must increase its proactivity out in field, in the farms and where seasonal workers live and work.’’
“No one really knows what is going on,” she said.
The CEO of Absolute Immigration, Jamie Lingham, was also critical of the worker exploitation that has been allowed to run rampant in the agriculture industry. However, he encouraged policy makers to take a considered approach to the issue, cautioning them to avoid falling victim to media hysteria.
“There is no doubt that there are significant instances of exploitation happening within both the seasonal worker program, and the working holiday visa program. It is our view that a radical overhaul of the system is needed to protect foreign workers,” Lingham said.
“While we agree that one death is too many, it would also be good to look at this figure when compared to the number of overall deaths experienced by the agriculture industry during a similar period, so that we can see if the issue is with these workers, or if it’s just media hype.”
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