Vila Times

Vanuatu may close Seasonal Workers Program after ni-Vanuatu deaths in Australia

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Pacific Island nations are threatening to axe a labour hire scheme in Australia after the deaths of 12 foreign workers amid claims of exploitation and slavery-like conditions.

Twelve Pacific Island workers have died in Australia over the past five years, including four ni-Vanuatu, while on the Federal Government-run Seasonal Worker Program which was designed to alleviate labour shortages for Australian farmers struggling to find staff to pick and pack fruit and vegetables, The Courier-Mail reports.

It’s claimed extreme neglect of the Pacific workers contributed to some of the deaths with allegations many were living in squalid conditions, being underpaid and unable to feed themselves properly while working long hours in sweltering conditions.

Senior officials from many of the nations are threatening to axe the program if more worker lives are lost, a move which could damage Australia’s horticulture industry and the Pacific Islanders who rely on the program to support their families.

A source close to the Vanuatu government said the country has threatened to pull out of the program if there were more deaths, while the Samoan Prime Minister has expressed concerns in local media about the death of a Samoan worker in Australia.

Seven of the 12 Pacific Islanders who were on the Seasonal Worker Program died in the past 13 months were in Queensland. Several of the men who died lived in squalid conditions, including caravans and illegal shipping containers, were underpaid and struggled to feed themselves.

Australian Government was warned 16 months ago of problems with certain employers on the scheme, some of which employed workers who died.

By contrast, New Zealand has run a similar scheme for more than a decade and has employed four times the number of workers Australia, yet has recorded nine deaths.

Countries participating in the program include Tonga, Vanuatu, Fiji, East Timor and Kiribati.