Property owner to appeal emergency order after 40 fruit pickers from Vanuatu found living in one Tasmanian house

PHOTO: Solomon Islands Ministry of Foreign Affairs

About 40 fruit pickers from Vanuatu were found living in a “cramped, hot and crowded” dwelling in north-west Tasmania where the fire safety risk was “obvious”. 

The kitchen had only one working burner, and some of the workers were using portable cookers connected to power boards next to bunk beds, which were in turn connected to other power boards. 

The conditions were detailed in the Tasmanian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (TASCAT), after the owner of the property at Shearwater — a company called Insight Pty Ltd — appealed an emergency order from Latrobe Council issued last year. 

TASCAT rejected the appeal, and this week provided its reasons. 

Insight director Simon Baldock confirmed the company intends to appeal to the Supreme Court. 

The TASCAT decision outlined how the most crowded area was a 58-square-metre converted sunroom, which contained 18 bunk beds and a mattress on the floor. 

The workers were living at the property under the Commonwealth’s Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme, but were working on a farm that was unrelated to the property owners. 

Following a tip-off, council inspectors made an unannounced visit on February 15, 2023, and found multiple rooms with overloaded power boards. 

A building inspector had difficulties accessing one of the exit doors to the sunroom, and a compliance officer said there was “minimal ventilation” in the bedrooms. Some doors and windows were blocked by bunk beds. 

“A significant number of rooms in the larger dwelling had been converted into bedrooms. There were approximately 10 bedrooms with 56 total bunk beds available throughout the dwelling,” the report noted. 

Body-worn footage was provided to TASCAT, in which various workers described the living conditions as “cramped, hot and too crowded”, while inspectors commented on how “hot and stuffy” some of the bedrooms were. 

Two staff members from the Tasmania Fire Service also attended, with one saying firefighters “could very quickly become overwhelmed” if a fire occurred and 40 people were inside, and the other describing the fire safety risk as “very significant”. 

Latrobe Council issued the emergency order due to the fire risk. 

Baldock had earlier argued the emergency order was not necessary. 

In its appeal to TASCAT, the company argued the dwelling was a “Class 1A” building; a category that includes share houses. 

Class 1A buildings have lower fire safety requirements, and usually have fewer than 12 occupants. 

In the decision, TASCAT members dismissed Insight’s argument that the dwelling was Class 1A. 

Even if it were, the TASCAT members said it would not have met fire safety requirements. 

“The potential risk to the seasonal workers that were housed in the dwelling was obvious,” they wrote. 

“The emergency order insofar as it required those workers to evacuate was necessary to prevent the possibility of a tragic loss of life if there was a fire.”

Another building surveyor believed it was a Class 3 building — generally a boarding house — that has far higher fire safety requirements. 

TASCAT accepted this argument. 

In a statement, r Baldock said “as a family we are disappointed by the outgoing GM’s [council general manager’s] parting swipe at us, our business and family integrity”. 

“The TASCAT decision raises unique questions of law about what an Australian dwelling is, with huge implications for share houses and group housing.” 

He said the “fire threat claimed was, on our advice, grossly exaggerated”.  

Latrobe Council earlier said the workers were given alternative accommodation after the emergency order was issued. 

It came just over three years after the council issued an emergency order on the same property, where about 70 Pacific Island workers were being housed. 

Insight was ordered to pay some of the council’s costs. 

Latrobe Council general manager Gerald Monson said he was pleased with the decision.