This report was produced in collaboration with Islands Business, Fiji.
Australian authorities are investigating whether dozens of workers from small, remote Fijian villages may be victims of labour exploitation after allegedly being deceptively recruited to work on farms in north-west Victoria.
While Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Australian Border Force (ABF) investigations are ongoing, a local Victorian MP said worker exploitation was a “chronic” issue in the Sunraysia region, and that the case would not be surprising.
The AFP and the ABF would not confirm to the ABC the exact number of potential victims — or what type of visas they had to travel to Australia — citing security and safety concerns.
But several people familiar with the workers in the case told the ABC the Fijians reportedly paid roughly $FJ2,300 ($1,545) to a travel agent in Fiji who obtained tourist visas for them rather than working visas.
It’s understood some 40 people arrived in Sydney or Melbourne in small groups in August before being taken to Mildura in north-western Victoria.
Upon arrival, it is believed they moved into accommodation organised by an Australia-based contractor, where they began work picking fruit on farms in the Sunraysia region.
People familiar with the workers told the ABC they had to pay more than $100 rent per week for the accommodation, in addition to transportation fees to get to and from the farms for work.
The ABC made several attempts to contact the contractor for comment but they did not return calls or otherwise respond.
AFP Detective Superintendent Jayne Crossling said authorities were investigating the case in Australia and Fiji.
“And we’ve importantly put some protections around them and they are safe”.
The allegations first came to light in September after a group of Fijian workers travelled to Sydney and requested support from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
The group told authorities they might be victims of deceptive recruitment, which is treated as a human trafficking offence.
The AFP would not comment on the group’s whereabouts in Sydney but said they were safe and that interviews about the alleged exploitation were still ongoing.
The ABC has made repeated attempts to speak with these workers but they have declined.
But Sakiusa Lesuma, a Fijian-Australian who lives in Mildura and assisted the workers, told the ABC that the workers told him they’d been “tricked” as they thought they were paying the travel agent for the correct visa.
The AFP and ABF carried out two raids in Mildura in October as part of their investigations into that group, and discovered 19 foreigners working in Australia illegally — 16 of whom were from Fiji, in addition to two Tongans and a Malaysian.
ABF said nine of them were also in Australia illegally.
Two people were detained and remain in immigration detention, but the others were granted bridging visas.
“We cannot possibly put a timeline on when any charges, if any charges, will be actually laid. And for now, our priority remains protecting the victims, and identifying what’s best for the victims,” Superintendent Crossling told the ABC.
But none of the 19 people discovered during the raids in Mildura identified as victims of labour exploitation.
ABF Commander James Copeland told the ABC it was difficult to prosecute cases where workers found themselves in Australia working on invalid visas.
“Often individuals that are exploited fear reprisal, and as such do not come forward to provide evidence,” he said.
The ABC understands that the workers are from several villages in a remote part of Fiji.
Iowane, a chief in one of the villages that workers were recruited from, said seven men and one woman from his area were among those who’d gone to Australia after applying for work through a travel agent.
“I don’t know everything that happened there. They left the village three, or two months [ago],” he said.
Iowane said his own son was among those who wanted to join the group, but the chief said he talked him out of it over concerns he had about the whole issue.
The ABC has been in contact with both the travel agent and a man allegedly involved in recruiting in Fiji, but they denied any wrongdoing.
They said they were only helping people find better-paying work in Australia, and that tourist visas were an easier and cheaper option to obtain than working visas.
Neither agreed to be interviewed.