Vanuatu seasonal workers speak out on mistreatment

FILE PHOTO: Vanuatu seasonal workers. Photo: NZ High Commission

A group of Vanuatu seasonal workers in Australia who absconded from their farms have come out to shed light on their working conditions.

While they say they regret that their actions have tarnished Vanuatu’s effort in the programme and apologise for their actions, they also want their voices heard and concerns understood.

These individuals have highlighted their concerns through an email that they sent to the Vanuatu Commissioner of Labour, Murielle Meltenoven on July 13, hoping to have the relevant authorities consider the issues raised.

The workers claim that the workers’ work rights and hours against the rates failed to match the contracts they signed before departing Vanuatu. They are saying that agents, contractors, and employers should be held accountable for this, as they did not take into consideration the wellbeing of workers and the literacy status of respective individuals when drafting the contracts.

They say unnecessary deductions need to be reviewed; for instance, they are calling for a review on deductions that are being made to utilities, health care, and welfare of workers and contractors’ transportations. They say accommodation costs are far too expensive.

“After deductions, workers are left with AUD200-AUD300 (US$136 – US$272) in a week. That is not justifiable enough to manage a sustainable living in Australia, and support our families back home,” they stressed in their email to the Commissioner.

According to the absconders, the termination of workers has been made by contractors with no ongoing support. “Most are left lost and with no direction given to seek help. These treatments are far beyond our capacity, being in a foreign country,” they stated.

They are claiming that even some workers were asked to take their belongings and leave the property without any notice or help by the contractors involved.

Given their status in the situation they are caught in, the absconders have also listed the following recommendations that they believe will address the issue at hand and improve workers’ working conditions in the future. These calls are reproduced verbatium.

Workers’ welfare

All workers’ welfare must be taken into consideration, to stop the miscommunications between employers to contractors and contractors to employees. For instance, offer services to cater to workers’ emotions and mental needs.

Extension of contracts

Extension of contracts should be a newly signed contract. Given the differed hours, rates, and work benefits, we believe that it’s only fair that the deductions are made accordingly so we’re not left short-handed.

Termination process of workers is supposed to be carried out professionally. Please review the process with contractors and employers, as some of the workers weren’t given any written or verbal notice, nor were any help or direction given for them to know what the next step process is. Basic welfare needs to be taken into consideration.

Contract

Please review and consider the hours/ piece rate salary stated in the contract. For instance, if the contract states 38 hours minimum per week or $4 per (US$2.72) tray (tomatoes, berries, and so forth), then the contractors and employers need to uphold their end of the bargain or ease up on the deductions.

Accommodations

Please hold a high standard when organising and approving terms of housing. Four people sharing one cubical/ room and being charged $150(US$102) p/w is not healthy and with no sense of privacy. Please review and negotiate a more manageable and affordable rent payment. We ask that all rent made payable to the landlord be recognised as a tenancy agreement and be used as liable references when we return home. We want a ledger from the landlord.

Deductions

Please ensure that our deductions are to be used as liable sources of financial commitments should we ever be interested in seeking loans back home.

Payslips

Please hold all employers and contractors accountable should they fail to provide payslips.

Superannuation

Please ensure workers have access to their super funds to see their super contributions.

Health

Please ensure you negotiate with the health department concerned to see that both men and women have access to feasible health checks.

Tax

Some contractors don’t help workers with obtaining their Tax File Numbers (TFN) or withholding worker’s TFNs. Please hold contractors accountable.

The absconders wish to see the Vanuatu Government and the Department of Labour consider these points seriously.

“With due respect, we expected more from the Labour Commissioner. The havoc caused by absconders, and her threatening to blacklist us without actually taking the time to listen to our concerns. After her latest visit to Australia, we are very disappointed with the direction or lack of transparency she has chosen to take when we needed her the most.

“In our desperate state to seek help, most of us have reached out to the Vanuatu High Commissioner in Canberra. To date, he has not responded to either our calls or emails. We are very disappointed at the lack of communication from our High Commissioner.

“We hope that with this letter, you will have a better understanding as to why we did what we did and for you to listen to our concerns.

“Please bear in mind that we are happy to work, we are just not happy with the mistreatments and hope that you (Labour Commissioner) can implement steps to improve the scheme between Vanuatu and Australia.”

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