Kaniva news commentary
Tongan workers in Tasmania said this week they wanted to warn people in the kingdom what they were getting themselves into by joining the Seasonal Worker Programme in Australia.
“We want them to know the truth. People just pay for the airfares and come over here because they don’t have the information they need,” the workers told the ABC.
Their comments came after the latest accusations of substandard housing of Tongan workers employed by Costa, this time involving accommodation owned by Burnie Mayor Steve Kons
Despite the benefits remittances and labour mobility bring to Pacific Island workers, recent events have shown they need to be offered proper protection from exploitation.
There have been concerns about the treatment of regional workers on both sides of the Tasman.
In New Zealand a major case has been brought to trial over the alleged exploitation of 13 Samoan workers.
Legal expert Dr Jade Lindley told Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat programme that many Pacific Islanders travelling to New Zealand and Australia were vulnerable to trafficking.
Dr Lindley said reports of trafficking and slavery in the seasonal agricultural industry were common.
“We definitely have seen these types of cases before,” Dr Lindley told Pacific Beat.
Last year Australia’s National Union of Workers said the exploitation of migrants was rampant in the agricultural sector.
The union NUW said it was launching an investigation into exploitation in Australia’s fruit picking industry where some foreign farm workers were enduring “slave-like conditions” and receiving wages as low as $8 a day.
Fiona Reynolds, chair of the UN Financial Sector Commission on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking said that while Australia’s anti-slavery laws set a global benchmark, labour laws needed to be reformed to address the risks of slavery in agriculture.
Australia had a long and unenviable reputation of exploiting Islander workers on its colonial sugar plantations.
Unfortuntaley, there have been too many stories of workers from across the Pacific having bad experiences in Australia under the current scheme for the days of blackbirding not be recalled.
Australia has legislation in place that should oblige companies to report infringements.
Australia’s new Modern Slavery Act requires both public and private organisations turning over more than $100 million annually to report on actions to mitigate risks of slavery in their operations and supply chain.
However, with the agricultural industry often fragmented into contractors and sub-contractors it would not be hard for a company to claim that it was unaware of what one sub-contractor was doing with another.
Earlier this week Kaniva news reported about 70 Tongan workers who were crammed into a five bedroom house in the Tasmanian town of Latrobe, which has drew condemnation from Australian trades union.
Australian unions said the Tongan workers’ employer, Costa, had committed what amounted to human rights abuse.
The Retail Supply Chain Alliance said Costa should face significant penalties for breaching its employer responsibilities.
“Employers like Costa are taking advantage of vulnerable people for profit and they deserve to face the full brunt of the law in this matter.
“I think Australian shoppers will be horrified to discover that the berries they eat every day come as a result of worker exploitation at its very worst level.”
A government enquiry is underway, but questions have to be asked about whether Australian legislation is inadequate to protect seasonal workers.
If the legislation proves to be inadequate or unenforcable, then perhaps the best to reinforce it is with boycotts by shopper who may well decide they do not want to buy products that may be the product of exploitation.
Companies, contractors and sub-contractors may fear suffering financially from boycotts and public exposure more than government legislation.
Tongan workers in Australia must feel that they are properly protected. They must know the law will protect them if they speak out and they must know that unions and customers will stand by them.
However, they should also expect support from their own Parliament. They should have the assurance that the Tongan government will step up and demand that Canberra will meet its obligations to ensure that workers are paid, housed and treated fairly.
UNESCO defines human trafficking very broadly as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”
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