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Church advocates seek lost wages for 22 Pacific Island seasonal workers exploited in Queensland

Unfair go: Vanuatu workers were underpaid tens of thousands of dollars.

CATHOLIC religious advocates are pressing federal politicians to support an act of grace payment for 22 Pacific Island seasonal workers exploited and underpaid by a Queensland labour-hire firm.

The workers from Vanuatu suffered “appalling treatment” and were underpaid tens of thousands of dollars when they were employed to pick fruit and vegetables in the Lockyer Valley, Sunshine Coast and Bundaberg.

“The disgrace of coming home with less than what they left with has just really been hard for them,” Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans executive officer Christine Carolan said.

Five ACRATH members have doorknocked federal ministers, advisors and shadow ministers in Canberra this week, seeking payment of about $107,000 for the men, in a case that has drawn attention to the Federal Government’s Seasonal Worker Program, an important part of Australia’s outreach in the Pacific and Timor-Leste.

It provides farms with access to labour while, for workers – when they are properly paid – the scheme provides a big economic boost to small Pacific countries.  

“The seasonal worker program is a specific program for Pacific Islanders and Timor Leste, and it is just pitched at them,” Ms Carolan said.

“It is part of our overseas aid program, so it is just even more disgusting that our overseas aid program has rendered these 22 men, most of them in debt after their trip.”

She said an act of grace compensation of $107,900 would address the non-payment of the workers’ salaries, and the theft of their airfares and spending money.

In 2017, Maroochy Sunshine Pty Ltd was penalised $186,000 and its sole director Emmanuel Bani was fined a further $41,300 in the Federal Circuit Court in Brisbane, following legal action by the Fair Work Ombudsman.

In 2017, Maroochy Sunshine Pty Ltd was penalised $186,000 and its sole director Emmanuel Bani was fined a further $41,300 in the Federal Circuit Court in Brisbane, following legal action by the Fair Work Ombudsman.

Judge calls it “appalling treatment”

In his judgment, Judge Michael Jarrett described Bani’s “appalling treatment” of the 22 workers as having deprived them of the appropriate basic living standards expected in Australia, and causing a “profound impact” upon them and their families.

“The offending conduct was clearly designed to exploit this group of vulnerable workers,” Judge Jarrett said.

Bani required each of the employees to fund the costs of obtaining a visa, airfares to Australia, a medical check-up and a police check.

Many of the workers took out loans with the National Bank of Vanuatu to cover these costs. 

“The promises made to the employees by Mr Bani … were for the most part false,” Judge Jarrett said. 

“Most received no wages while in Australia and had to endure appalling treatment by Mr Bani.” 

Unpaid and underpaid

Under the terms of the Seasonal Worker Program and his agreement with the employees, Bani was obliged to provide each of the workers with at least 30 hours of work each week and weekly wages of more than $500.

However, Maroochy Sunshine and Bani paid 13 of the 22 workers nothing at all while they worked in Australia.  

The others were given individual cash payments of between $50 and $300.

After the court hearing Acting Fair Work Ombudsman Michael Campbell says the investigation discovered “harrowing” experiences and serious exploitation.

“One of the workers gave evidence that working for Bani’s company was like ‘slavery times’ and that he had ‘never before experienced working a full day without even a cup of tea and only being fed tomatoes’,” Mr Campbell said.

“Workers were sometimes forced to work entire days harvesting produce without any food or drink and for no pay.

“In addition, the workers spent much of their time in remote and isolated transient accommodation, sometimes sleeping in a bus on the side of the road or on chairs in a bedroom owned by a friend of Bani.”

Ms Carolan said federal politicians had been briefed on the case and were sympathetic to the plight of Pacific Islander seasonal workers.

“Nobody has got out a cheque book, but we’re very hopeful,” she said.

“We want an act of grace payment.

“People really get it – that’s it’s been a really bad piece of exploitation.”

ACRATH is pressing the Federal Government to adopt a national labour-hire registration to help curb the exploitation of overseas workers, and to boost development assistance spending on eliminating the causes of human trafficking.

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