A small group of Vanuatu nationals are again working legally on a sweet potato farm in Bundaberg, but the whereabouts and visa status of more than 30 others remains unknown.
- Thirty-six workers remain outside the SWP after absconding, but 15 are back on the job
- Concerns have been raised about the visa status of the workers who have absconded
- One of the workers says she left because of problems with the terms of employment
Last month Vanuatu’s High Commissioner to Australia revealed details about an employment dispute involving 51 workers who were no longer employed under the federal seasonal worker program (SWP).
It is understood many of them absconded from their employer in Bundaberg in September in search of better pay and work conditions and had been living in various backpacker hostels until recently.
A spokesperson from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment said some had rejoined the SWP with an approved employer based in Childers.
“Currently 15 workers have been reconnected to the SWP and are in accommodation that has been approved,” the spokesperson said.
“The department is aware that a number of Ni-Vanuatu workers, who had not reconnected with the SWP, have left Bundaberg.
“The department continues to work towards re-engaging SWP workers with the program.”
Respect an issue
Worker Nicole Charlie said she was pleased to be back in the program after six months of uncertainty.
“I really appreciate the authorities, they’ve heard our concerns,” she said.
“There are some people behind us that have been helping us to get through what we’ve been facing along the way.”
Ms Charlie and her colleagues abandoned the SWP after becoming unhappy with their former employer and issues with accommodation at the sweet potato farm they were working on.
“There was concerns that were raised with the contractor … concerning accommodation and the letter of offer,” she said.
Bill Darby from Farmgate Backpackers at Childers employed the 15 people and said it was a good they were now working legally for the first time in months.
“These workers are somewhat vulnerable and they can be enticed by the offer of better conditions or better pay,” he said.
Questions over visa status
The ABC understands the 36 other Vanuatu workers may have travelled to the Sunshine Coast or interstate.
A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs has warned that program participants who abscond may be in breach of their visa conditions and liable for visa cancellation.
“If a participant’s visa is cancelled, they may be subject to immigration detention and removal from Australia as soon as reasonably practicable.” the spokesperson said.
“In this case, an exclusion period of three years may apply, which could prevent them from returning to Australia for this period.”
Last week, the Australian Border Force (ABF) detained a 36-year-old Malaysian national in the Bundaberg region for being an unlawful non-citizen.
The man was also accused of being an unregistered and unlicensed labour hire intermediary and a key facilitator in the exploitation of foreign workers.
Assistant Commissioner north Tim Fitzgerald said the ABF was committed to supporting the welfare of seasonal workers in Australia and making sure they were being treated properly and receiving the right pay and entitlements.
“The ABF will not tolerate the exploitation of foreign workers and will continue to target individuals and companies who make profits by facilitating illegal work and taking advantage of workers,” Mr Fitzgerald said.
“Information obtained … will form the basis of further investigations into facilitators of worker exploitation and migration fraud.”