Vanuatu investigates 'substantial' pay and welfare issues of seasonal workers in Queensland

Problems surrounding wages and conditions for seasonal workers in the horticulture industry must be fixed to stop them from absconding, according to Vanuatu's High Commissioner.

Samson Vilvil Fare has visited farms in Queensland to talk to workers and employers, following reports Pacific Islanders were leaving their employers in the Bundaberg region in search of better pay.

"They didn't have enough working hours in what they were promised to have," Mr Fare said.

"This is one of the main issues … they're not making enough money."

Mr Fare said it was unclear what the consequences were for a worker's visa status if they absconded from an employer.

"This is a situation which has already been happening, where workers are absconding and leaving their employer for another employer who is not approved," he said.

"Most of the time the workers do not understand the whole process.

"We're looking closely into these issues from the Australian Government side, but also from our side."

The High Commissioner described the issues as "substantial" and said he planned to raise them with federal politicians.

"To make sure that we address them in a better way and make sure that the workers, but also the employers, are happy," he said.

"One solution is to look into those visa conditions and see if the workers have all the information from the beginning.

"Some of them arrived 12 months ago and sometimes their visa conditions change and they may not be aware of it."

Filling a seasonal worker shortage

Tongan seasonal workers arrived in Queensland last week. The 150 workers are undergoing two weeks' quarantine on an Emerald farm.

In August, the Australian Government agreed to recommence targeted recruitments under the Pacific Labour Scheme and Seasonal Worker Program to meet shortages after the country closed its borders due to the coronavirus pandemic earlier in the year.

A spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture said it would allow productive and experienced workers from participating countries to enter Australia in a controlled way.

"To support critical industries, including agriculture, in rural and regional Australia," the spokesperson said.

"Participating countries include Fiji, Vanuatu, Nauru, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Timor Leste.

"The Pacific Labour Facility has advised government that there is roughly 22,000 workers work-ready across participating countries."

Mr Fare said the agreement had the dual aim of filling a labour shortage and benefiting Pacific Islander workers through upskilling.

However he said more could be done to improve working conditions.

"I have been able to sit with them and listen to what they have to say about their work, the positive experiences and the not so positive," Mr Fare said.

"I learnt a lot about how they work and I can see they gain a lot of different skills in different areas."