Calls for a crackdown on labour hire companies 'poaching' Pacific workers

Plane loads of seasonal workers from the Pacific Islands have been a welcome sight for Australian farmers desperate to find labour during the global pandemic.

In the last 18 months, around 12,000 workers have come into Australia from countries such as Vanuatu and Samoa.

But how many have stayed in the jobs, they were contracted to do?

ABC Rural has been told more than 1,000 of these workers have absconded, with many poached by labour hire companies that are not licensed to do so.

What's going wrong?

Speaking to RN, Richard Shannon from Growcom said across Australia, farmers were reporting seasonal workers suddenly leaving their jobs.

"I think there are two sides to this coin. There is an absconding side with workers looking to leave their employment, and there's a poaching side where other employers are luring them away, and sometimes it's a combination of both."

Executive officer of Approved Employers of Australia (AAE), Steve Burdette, believed many of the damning stories about seasonal workers being underpaid and exploited in Australia stem from dodgy labour hire companies luring workers away from approved employers.

"These workers are going from approved accommodation, a very transparent payment system and other contracts in place, to a system where they get cash under the table, they have no health cover, there are no checks and balances," he said.

"They get promised the world and taken to places, employed by people with no licence, and [can be] exploited."

He said unlicensed companies were undermining the integrity of the entire Pacific Labour Scheme.

Calls for a crackdown

Northern Territory mango grower, Nino Niceforo, had some workers abscond from his farm last year and wants authorities to crack down on both the companies poaching workers and the seasonal workers who choose to flee.

"They need to be sent home and should not be allowed to stay in Australia and work," he said.

"They [federal government] need to set an example, that [seasonal workers] can't just jump ship when they feel like it."

Andrew Coldbeck, the managing director of employment agency The Job Shop, said over the last 18 months, he had seen first-hand the rise in seasonal workers absconding.

"Our industry has been quite vocal in passing on information [to the government] when people have absconded," he said.

"There's been a lot of information provided to authorities and we just want them to take action."

Speaking to RN, Australian Border Forces' Phil Brezzo defended his organisations' policing of the matter. 

"We investigate all of these matters that are raised to our attention," he said.

"We've got over 400 officers that are dedicated to field operations, and in the last three months alone, there's been about 50 visits and about 450 field actions.

"So, we are out there and certainly intend to be increasingly out there as these schemes scale up."

The federal government has also launched a campaign to try and prevent workers from fleeing their jobs, with a graphic poster warning workers to "be wary of people who may promise you better work, more money or a visa to live permanently in Australia."

It also outlines the consequences of absconding, warning "your visa may be cancelled" and "you may bring shame to your family's reputation".

A lot to be worked on before Ag Visa

The Job Shop's Andrew Coldbeck said the federal government had a lot of issues to solve before the roll-out of its much-publicised Agriculture Visa.

"We'd like to see some action by authorities to send a signal to those people that are poaching seasonal workers that they can't get away with it any longer," he said.

"Because if we don't get that right, it will just continue... and what's to say it won't happen with the Ag visa when it's all finalised, and people start coming into the country under that visa."