Silas Aru had never known a day’s work where all he had to eat were some of the tomatoes he’d picked.
The Ni-Vanuatu man had come to Australia seeking the chance to work, in order to pay school fees for his children’s education.
But he spent his time in the country in bonded labour: hungry, unpaid, shunted from farm to farm without explanation, and abused and threatened when he asked for his wages. “It was like slavery times,” he told the Australian federal court.
Over six months working in the central Queensland town of Childers he was hungry most of the time: some days he had only to eat what he had picked, other days he was given a piece of bread to eat and water to drink.
Aru left Australia not enriched, but indebted. For six months work, he was paid $150. But Aru’s experience was not exceptional.
In March this year, the Australian federal court fined the man who brought Aru to Australia, Emmanuel Bani, and his company a total of $227,300 and ordered he pay nearly $80,000 in back pay to 22 Ni-Vanuatu men he sponsored to Australia, and whom he underpaid and exploited. More than half of those men were paid no money at all, despite working for months on farms across Queensland.
Twenty-two workers told the court they often were given no food for entire days, moved from farm to farm without warning and forced to sleep on buses on the side of the road, or on chairs.
They were abused and threatened with arrest or deportation if they asked for food and water, or about their pay: “Stop asking questions about payment. If you keep asking I will send you back to Vanuatu,” Bani told his workers, and threatened to call the police.
It was “difficult to imagine more egregious conduct” in “the serious exploitation of vulnerable foreign workers lured to Australia by false promises”, Judge Michael Jarratt said in sentencing.
“Most received no wages and while in Australia they had to endure appalling treatment by Mr Bani, who had received payment for the labour undertaken by the employees and payment from the Australian government.”
But Bani was assessed as an “approved employer” by two Australian government departments, and allowed to sponsor seasonal workers to Australia. Another of Bani’s companies, Pacific Crop Harvesting, continues to advertise Pacific labour online, promising “Contract farm labour. Minimum Costs. Maximum Rewards”.
Bani was unlikely to ever pay the men for their work, or the fine imposed by the court, Judge Jarratt said.
In evidence to a Queensland parliamentary inquiry into labour hire contracting, the Salvation Army said seasonal workers were often “during the day … just eating the fruit that they are picking and are reliant on our church volunteers who in some instances are doing food drops every week. The workers are essentially eating mandarins, bread and rice and not much else.”
During that inquiry, the Salvation Army referred to the death of 22-year-old Tongan national Sione “Vaka” Fifita, who died after falling ill in the hostel where he was staying while picking fruit on a farm. In its submission to the parliament, the Salvation Army said that “he was left for eight days without medical care in this caravan park”.
The contractor who employed Fifita said: “We did everything we could to ensure medical treatment for Sione as soon as he told us he was sick. The men have private insurance and the doctors is only 1.5 kilometres away, we regularly take the boys there and also they can go by themselves.”
His employer said when he was was informed Fifita was sick, Fifita initially declined medical assistance, and only agreed to see the doctor after his employer personally insisted. The Guardian is not suggesting that Fifita’s employer engaged in slavery, exploitation or any unlawful activity.
An earlier ABC investigation uncovered Fijian and Tongan workers picking fruit in Victoria for as little as $9 a week after deductions – for accommodation, flights, visas, bedding, food and gloves – were taken from their pay.
The deaths of workers – 10 seasonal labourers have died in the five years of Australia’s program – court judgments, parliamentary inquiries, and media exposés have brought new scrutiny to Australia’s government-run seasonal worker program, which brings workers from nine Pacific countries and Timor-Leste to Australia to work, bonded to an employer, for up to nine months in a nominated industry, most commonly horticulture.
The program remains modest; 4,163 workers came to Australia last financial year, but consistent allegations of exploitation and abuse have surfaced.
A Senate inquiry heard evidence from unions in Australia, Pacific countries and Timor-Leste that “indicates the exploitation of workers participating in the seasonal worker program is common”.
“Complaints include the provision of substandard accommodation, deductions of up to 60% of wages for lodging and board, long hours and excessive or unpaid overtime, and lack of access to health care.”
Church and community groups provide food, clothes, and health care to seasonal workers. The Senate inquiry found that “these organisations are effectively subsidising employers, by fulfilling the requirements that are set down for employers participating in the program”.
But workers were “generally disinclined to complain about improper treatment for fear it will adversely impact on their potential earnings”.
“With their visa tied to their employer, they fear that any complaint will see them sent home before the end of their contract, resulting in a significant loss in income.”
Australia’s fair work commission will conclude a four-year investigation into working conditions for migrant horticultural workers, the Harvest Trail inquiry, at the end of this year. A separate Senate inquiry into a Modern Slavery Act, based on the UK legislation, has heard evidence of exploitation of Pacific workers.
Reward – and risk
The men have put down roots, of sorts, here; they are members of the congregations of the churches that dot the main street, and they have friends with whom they stop to talk to in the street.
The Guardian spoke with more than 15 seasonal workers who have laboured across dozens of farms for various employers. Few were willing to speak on the record, some saying they have been threatened with deportation or retribution for speaking with the media.
Many have been told if they complain they will be immediately deported without any pay – sent home in disgrace never to return – and that they will jeopardise the chance for anyone from their village to ever come to Australia.
For men from small, familial villages in developing Pacific nations where jobs are hard to find and comparatively low-paid, it is a significant sanction.
The work on Australia farms is hard, said the men Guardian Australia spoke to, but they are willing labourers. The rewards are good. “I can earn in six months here what would take me five years back home,” one said.
The remittances sent back home are intended to put children through school, build new homes or buy land.
But many have said the rewards promised in Australia have not materialised. Workers sign contracts for up to five years, committing to return each season. At the beginning of their employment, one group of citrus pickers in central Queensland say, they were paid $130 for each bin they filled with mandarins.
Then the price dropped, to $120, then $110, then $100, then $80, and then $60. Men are now picking for $55 a bin, barely 40% of what they were promised at the beginning of the season.
“We don’t know if that price is the lowest it will go to, or whether there will be even less money next week,” one worker told the Guardian. “We don’t know why the prices go down,” another said. “They never tell us, they just say the price has changed. Sometimes they tell us after we have picked: ‘For this bin, you only get this amount’.”
In evidence put before parliamentary inquiries, seasonal workers across Australia have reported being housed in substandard accommodation, sometimes with four or five men sharing rusting caravans, or cabins, with unreliable water supply.
Some workers have reported having to cross a highway in the dark to go to the toilet or shower in other accommodation. Others have reported mice infestations, unhygienic food-preparation areas, and open sewage drains.
A spokesman for the Australian Department of Employment, which oversees the seasonal worker program, told the Guardian there were stringent protections for seasonal workers, who enjoyed the same legal employment rights as Australians. All employers of seasonal workers undergo stringent vetting and monitoring, the spokesman said.
“The department checks approved employers through site visits, regular written reports from employers, including the provision of pay data, and close liaison with labour sending units in participating countries.
“Any suspected legislative breaches are referred to the appropriate regulatory and law enforcement bodies.”
Workers are briefed on their rights before leaving their home country, have access to health care in Australia, and are able to call a phone hotline to raise concerns or complaints “which are fully investigated by the department”.
‘These boys are on a hiding to nothing’
“My ancestors were taken from their homes and their families, and they suffered so that somebody else could grow rich,” Smith said. “My family went through that.
“And it makes me sad, and it makes me angry, that this country is doing it again. These boys are on a hiding to nothing, while someone else gets rich.”
From her home near Bundaberg, “Aunty Jane” and her husband Geoff run weekly runs delivering food and other essentials to the Pacific seasonal workers in Childers. She has run public appeals for blankets for the men to sleep under.
“It’s not right what’s happening here,” she told the Guardian. “The boys don’t have enough food, enough clothes to wear, the right shoes. They aren’t being properly cared for, and there’s no way they can complain.”
Smith’s family history is a window into a little-known chapter of Australian history. Between 1863 and 1904 Australian traders transported more than 62,000 South Sea Islanders, from 80 islands across modern-day Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and New Caledonia, as “sugar slaves”, a practice known as blackbirding.
Earlier attempts to traffic Pacific Islanders to Australia had been disastrous. In 1847, grazier Benjamin Boyd transported 65 men from Lifu Island in what is now New Caledonia to work on his properties. The men died, disappeared, or escaped to Sydney to beg passage home. The colonial government of New South Wales outlawed the practice.
But by 1863, the demand for cheap labour outweighed any moral hesitation.
Men, women, and children were coerced, tricked, or kidnapped onboard ships and trafficked to Australia where they were put to work, mostly in northern Australia’s cotton and sugarcane plantations.
The work was brutally hard, and conditions harsh: 15,000 sugar slaves – one in four transported – are estimated to have died in Australia, most buried in unmarked graves.
When blackbirding was ultimately outlawed by the new Commonwealth of Australia at the beginning of the 20th century, sugar slaves were rounded up and summarily deported, often to different islands from where they’d had come.
But northern Australia was, in large part, built on indentured labour, and its legacy remains. Boyd has a national park named after him in NSW. Two of the largest cities in north Queensland, Townsville and Mackay, are named after Robert Towns and John Mackay, men who forged their fortunes and reputations on the backs of the labour of sugar slaves.
Aunty Emelda Davis, president of the Australian South Sea Islanders Association, knows the very beach on the island of Tanna, in modern-day Vanuatu, from where her grandfather, Moses Toupay Enares, was taken as a 12-year-old and brought to Australia to work.
She is leading a movement to more broadly recognise a dark chapter in Australian history and has campaigned for formal recognition of South Sea Islanders as a distinct cultural group in Australia, and for greater public understanding of the practices that brought her ancestors to the country.
She said her ancestor’s forced separation from family, and his treatment in Australia, coloured his whole life, and the generations that followed. “The more I study this, the more I understand why I am the way I am, and why my family are the way they are.”
“The effects of past slavery in our young history haunts the minds, hearts and soul of our people. And we believe that history is repeating.”
In the 21st century, the systems of exploitation are more subtle, the abuse neither so conspicuous nor dramatic, but Smith sees parallels in what is happening to those brought to Australia now.
“Our people are again being exploited, treated as though we’re expendable. And the people in charge know about this. And if they don’t, they should.”
But those who see it up close believe in the merit and the potential of the program. They argue it can benefit both Australia and the workers’ countries of origin.
Domestically, seasonal workers are vital to the Australian economy, the fruits of their labour supply supermarket chains and grocers across the land and the globe.
Regionally, remittances are a powerful development tool, often far more effective than aid, that can uplift families and whole communities from poverty, improve educational opportunities and spark indigenous industry.
But those same supporters of the seasonal work program see the structural inequality in the system as it is currently run. Those brought to Australia are bonded to a labour hire company or employer. They are not free to leave without risking deportation, nor complain about abuses without risking the same.
The “boss-man”, as many of the seasonal workers refer to their employer, has an almost-total control over workers’ lives – if and where they work, where they sleep, what they eat, how much they will be paid, and whether they can stay in the country – and many workers feel there is no authority they can practicably turn to if they are exploited or abused.
Jenny Stanger, national manager of the Salvation Army’s Freedom Partnership to End Modern Slavery, said migrant workers are a crucial part of Australia’s $70bn horticulture industry. “Farmers will tell you they are completely reliant on their labour to get their products to local and export markets, and seasonal worker remittances are critical to the economies of Pacific nations … yet we continue to see cases of serious exploitation and abuse of this vulnerable group.”
Stanger said stronger connections must be built between migrant workers and the communities in which they temporarily live and work. “Resourcing local communities to engage migrant workers is a sensible strategy in preventing and deterring exploitation, debt bondage and slavery-like conditions on Australian farms.”
She said some of the millions of dollars currently spent promoting jobs to migrants overseas should instead be provided to Australian communities already hosting them, assisting with welfare, and, on occasion, uncovering serious breaches of criminal and civil law.
“It shows them that we see them as whole people, value their contribution to and experience of our country. We should not underestimate the power of that kind of message on individuals, communities and business.”
‘Our rights should be the same’
In Queensland the Guardian met with a Timorese man who cannot be named for legal reasons. He has finished his term and will soon leave Australia.
He would like to return, because the money he has earned has helped build his family’s house, but doesn’t believe he can come back. He says he and his compatriot workers were deceived about their work in Australia.
“What is in the contract, what we were told we would receive, we never did. The hours, the payment, the accommodation, the contract was false.”
He says the seasonal worker program should work to the benefit of both countries.
“Australia needs workers to work on the farms, and for Timor-Leste, we can build our country and help our families. We can improve our lives.
“We are all human. The only difference is the colour of our skin, but our dignity is the same, our rights should be the same.”
The man says he wants the scheme to remain, but to be reformed. He says the next workers should be better cared for than they were.
“We can help each other, but it doesn’t feel like that to me now. It is not helping, it is exploiting us, because we are from a poor country and there is nothing we can do. We have no place to complain.”