Fijian seasonal workers told to return to work for contractor accused of exploitation or go home
By social affairs correspondent Norman Hermant
Seasonal workers from Fiji who were paid less than $10 a week have been told they must return to work for the contractor they say exploited them — or leave Australia.
- Government officials told the group they did not have long to make a decision
- The Fijians want to stay and find work with other employers
- The Fijian Government has asked Australia to investigate the working conditions
An ABC investigation last month revealed many of the workers received little or no pay after deductions while picking fruit and vegetables for AFS Contracting, in northern Victoria.
Since then, representatives from the Departments of Employment and Immigration met the Fijians, who have quit working for the contractor that sponsored their temporary visas to come to Australia.
The government officials told the workers they did not have long to make their decision.
“They [are] pushing us to go back home. Every one of us is not happy,” one of the group’s leaders, Merewairita Sovasiga, said.
“And we are going back home with nothing. We are taking nothing back home.”
The Fijians said they would like to stay and find work with other employers.
Workers want to take money home to cyclone-ravaged villages
Most are desperate to make some money before returning home.
“Most of these workers have homes that were devastated by the cyclone,” said Sakiusa Lesuma, a Fijian-Australian who is assisting the seasonal workers.
“This is the reason they want to stay back, and work somewhere else, earn some money.”
The ABC understands the Departments of Immigration and Employment told the Fijians the only option to earn money was to return to work for AFS Contracting and its owner, Tony Yamankol.
The workers from Fiji at the meeting said they would not do that.
“If you don’t want to go back to Fiji, then they’re trying to send us to our employer, Tony [Yamankol]. But I don’t like it,” one of the workers at the meeting, Manueli Taione, said.
“The way they treat us, they treat us like slaves, you know?”
The ABC tried repeatedly to contact AFS Contracting owner Mr Yamankol to ask him about the workers’ allegations. He did not respond to numerous phone calls and emails.
Visits to the farm where the Fijians worked, Mr Yamankol’s home and his registered office address were unsuccessful.
Ombudsman to review low wages claim
Minister for Employment Michaelia Cash has declined repeated requests for an interview about the Fijians’ case, and the potential damage it could be doing to the reputation of the Seasonal Workers Program in Fiji and other Pacific Islands.
The minister told the ABC that “the Department of Employment had referred specific issues to the Fair Work Ombudsman for review”.
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The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement that it was talking to Fiji about the workers’ complaints.
“The Australian Government regularly engages all Seasonal Worker Program participating countries on matters relating to their nation’s workers, including with Fiji on the allegations in this matter,” a spokesperson said.
Fiji’s Government said it was concerned by the reports of alleged exploitation.
“We’ve asked our counterparts in Australia to have a look at the conditions and all the complaints that have been raised by our seasonal workers, and they will come back to us,” Fiji Minister for Employment, Productivity and Industrial Relations Semi Koroilavesau said.
Fiji said 133 workers had been sent to Australia under the Seasonal Worker Program since last July.
Most come from rural areas, and the Fijian Government said many may not know what to expect when they get to Australia.
“We will continue to carry out public consultations in the rural areas, and make sure that our people understand the contracts that they enter into,” Mr Koroilavesau said.