The mayor of an Australian town at the centre of a scandal over accommodation for Tongan seasonal workers refused to say what legal action was being taken over the issue at a stormy public meeting last night.
As Kaniva news reported earlier, 77 Tongan seasonal workers were evacuated from a five bedroom house in shearwater due to overcrowding and inadequate conditions.
The ABC reported that Latrobe Mayor Peter Freshney did not answer most questions from the floor and claimed the matter was subject to potential legal action.
Cr Freshney told the meeting he only found out about the situation in Shearwater on February 4 and acted as soon as he did.
He did not detail exactly what legal action was being taken in relation to the seasonal workers’ accommodation, but said other properties in the area were under investigation.
About 100 Latrobe residents attended the council meeting demanding answers from the council about its handling of the situation.
They demanded the Mayor “front up” and explain what was happening.
However, the Mayor claimed he did not want to put ratepayers at risk by letting them say anything that could prejudice future proceedings.
Australian unions said the workers’ employer, Costa, had committed what amounted to human rights abuse.
The Retail Supply Chain Alliance, made up of the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), the The Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) and the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) called on the Federal Government to review the compoany’s right to hire seasonal workers.
It said Costa should face significant penalties for breaching its employer responsibilities.
“What kind of employer allows their workers to live in slum-like conditions?” National Secretary of the AWU Daniel Walton said.
“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. Unfortunately, this is not a one off.”
“Our farm workers undertake back breaking work to deliver incredible produce to our supermarkets. They deserve to be treated with respect and have a safe working and home environment while they are in Australia.
“Our neighbours from the South Pacific would expect us to look after their citizens, not exploit them.”
Last year Tongan worker Kalolo Kuea died at the Driscoll berry production company in Tasmania.
Fifteen Pacific islanders have reportedly died in the seasonal workers’ programme since it began 10 years ago.
The Brisbane Courier-Mail said extreme neglect was a factor in earlier deaths.