The labor hire company that employed Pacific Islanders who absconded from their work program has rejected claims it enticed them to breach their visas.
- Advocates say the 24 workers were vulnerable to inducements to leave their visa program
- Their new employer said no enticements were offered and called for flexibility in the scheme
- Unions are calling for tougher laws amid pressure in the industry to find staff
The 24 workers were employed under the Pacific Australian Labor Mobility (PALM) scheme but left their original sponsor to pursue better pay and conditions and subsequently breached their visa conditions.
The scheme requires workers to stay employed by their original sponsor and not change employers unless approved by the federal government.
The director of Victorian-based Urson Contracting, Isagani Ursua, said the workers came to him looking for jobs and acted in good faith when he employed them to work in Bundaberg, Queensland.
“There was no enticing, there was no recruitment, I didn’t visit Western Australia, Tasmania, or South Australia, wherever they absconded from — that’s totally false,” he said.
“It really hurts that things get thrown around like that, but there was no enticing them whatsoever.”
It is understood some of the dispute arose around confusion about pay deductions, which employers were entitled to make to recover some of the costs of flights and visas to recruit workers from the Pacific.
Mr Ursua said he was cooperating with an investigation by labor hire licensing authorities in Queensland, which had been launched in the wake of the allegations.
He said 12 of the workers were still engaged by his company.
“Absolutely great workers, can’t fault them at all, they love working,” Mr Ursua said.
“I had a meeting with them last week — they tell me that they enjoy working for us, that we’re doing all the right things, paying super, tax, everything is paid.
“[The accusations] have just really thrown me out… I’ve just really got a sick feeling in my gut.”
Calls to end deduction ‘rorting’
The use of deductions to recover costs has come under fire from the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), which passed a resolution at its national conference calling for new laws to limit them.
“Most PALM workers work in excess of 30 hours a week and can earn over $800,” AWU national secretary Daniel Walton said.
“But their take-home is less than $100 a week after dubious deductions for accommodation and transportation.
“After looking after their families back home, many PALM workers are left with nothing to buy even basic necessities.”
Mr Walton said the union had seen deductions charged at exorbitant rates for gear that should be provided on the job and for rapid antigen tests.
“Many of the deductions we’ve seen are just plainly wrong,” he said.
“We should make it explicit that the employer picks up the tab for flights and not the worker.
“If that principle is good enough for white collar workers coming to Australia, it should be good enough for farm workers too.”
‘Have you tried locals?’
The PALM scheme was originally devised as a small pilot in 2009 in Mundubbera, Queensland, to offer foreign aid through agricultural skills and jobs for people in the Pacific.
In 2012 it was expanded and since then, according to chief executive of horticulture industry group Growcom, Rachel Chambers, said it had grown into an essential source of workers.
“Absconding has happened highly infrequently, in my own experience,” the Mundubbera citrus grower said.
Ms Chambers said it was reasonable to expect workers to take up any issues they had with their employer first, most of whom were small growers who put everything they had into their businesses.
“There are no workers … the first question that anyone’s going to ask in Australia is, ‘Have you tried locals?'” she said.
“I was speaking to a strawberry grower last week… he had 600 group certificates last year.
“Out of those only four were consecutive for two weeks in a row and only two finished the 10-week strawberry season.
“That’s what the growers are up against… they’re doing [the PALM scheme] because they actually can’t find any other source of labour.”
Ms Chambers said the administrative burden on small business was immense, and as pressure built on the industry and the workers there was potential for future problems.
“Make no mistake, this labor shortage is a huge issue,” she said.
“People are going to play growers off against each other because the growers have to get the stuff picked, packed, shipped.
“There’s a lot of competition and I think potentially it could have been driving some of these outcomes.”
The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR) is working with the Department of Home Affairs to re-engage eligible Pacific workers back into the program.