ABC News, by Norman Hermant, 26 February 2016
A group of Pacific islanders are being paid less than $10 a week after deductions to pick fruit and vegetables on Australian farms by a company that sponsored their visas under a federally-run worker program.
PHOTO: Petero Kanawabu (left) said his mother burst into tears when he told her how much he was paid. (ABC News: Norman Hermant)
The workers came to Australia in January as part of the Department of Employment's Seasonal Worker Program.
The group of 20 from Fiji, and others from Tonga, were taken to the caravan park in Merrigum, in the food bowl district of northern Victoria.
Most of the workers are taken by bus every morning to nearby tomato and apple farms.
They are here on 416 visas after signing contracts with AFS Contracting Pty Ltd, based in Shepparton.
Isikeli Fifita, one of the workers from Tonga, said after deductions — which included super, rent, health insurance, tax and transport — his total net pay was $9.96 for one week.
"I feel sad because there's no money to send to my family in Tonga," Mr Fifita said.
Petero Kanawabu said he expected long hours and hard work when he signed on to come to Australia under the program.
But said he, and many others in his group from Fiji, had been shocked by their payslips.
"I thought that we would come here and do a job, maybe save some money," Mr Kanawabu said.
"Even my mum cried when I told her my first payslip. I don't know what to do now."
Workers thought they would earn hundreds a week
The Fijian workers signed the agreements back home, through the Government-run National Employment Centre.
The contracts prominently mention workers can expect to earn an average of $657 per week paid on the hourly wage.
Alternatively, the contract states an average worker can expect to earn a minimum of $595 per week if they work on the so-called piece rate, paid by the number of bins they fill with pieces of produce.
"Back home in Fiji, most of the people, even the National Employment Centre themselves, they were not sure of what was in the contract," said Merewairita Sovasiga, a worker who has emerged as a group leader.
She said the Fijians were never allowed to choose which rate they wanted to work under.
After the first week of work on the piece rate, Ms Sovasiga was shocked at her low pay.
Her payslip shows total pay of $295.80 for the week. That is before deductions for super, accommodation, daily transport to the farm and back, health insurance, and tax.
After those deductions, her net pay for that week was $58.80.
Three workers paying $120 a week each for a caravan
Photo: Mere Rabeua and Sia Davis were among a group who ended up leaving the caravan park. (ABC News: Norman Hermant)
The Fijians were particularly upset by how much they were being charged for rent: $120 each per week.
Some, like Sia Davis, were wedged three to a basic caravan.
"There's actually like three people here, and we're paying $120," she said.
"It's small, and it's not comfortable."
Most of the seasonal workers came to Australia with the intention of sending money home to their families.
But for Vasiti Savunicava, from Fiji, things are so bad her husband has had to send her money to buy food, and pay back an advance of $150 she received to buy basics when she arrived.
"My hope, when I came here, was to earn much to send money back to my family," she said.
"Instead of that, they sending money for me. So they're looking after me again."
Ombudsman investigating complaints
Photo: Tony Yamankol declined to speak to the ABC. (Facebook)
Fed up with the pay and conditions, the Fijians contacted both the Seasonal Workers Program in the Department of Employment, and the Fair Work Ombudsman.
The Ombudsman's office told 7.30 it was investigating the workers' complaint.
The owner of their employer, AFS Contracting, is Shepparton businessman Tony Yamankol.
After inspections by the Department of Employment and Fair Work Ombudsman the week of February 8, Mr Yamonkol visited workers at the Merrigum caravan park.
The workers said he singled out five so-called ringleaders. They recorded him telling them that they should leave on their own accord, or they would never work in Australia again.
"You want to go back on your own will, or you want to get terminated?" he is heard saying.
"If I terminate you will not come back into Australia with any other employer with this program."
Mr Yamankol declined 7.30's request for an interview to address the workers' complaints and also declined to respond to a series of questions submitted to him by email.
Ms Sovasiga has now left the caravan park.
She is staying over an hour away with Fijian-Australian Sakiuasa Lesuma, the founder of a Facebook forum which has become a key source of information for Pacific Islanders looking to pick produce in Australia and New Zealand.
Mr Lesuma is warning the forum's 45,000 members about potential pitfalls in the Seasonal Worker Program, starting with the fact that under their visas, seasonal workers are bound to the contractor that sponsors them.
"If you tell them to and go work for somebody else, in order to get some money they can send home, the contracts say they can't do it," he said.
"When I think about it, it's pure exploitation. It's not right. Not right."
Government will not tolerate 'exploitation' of seasonal workers
About 4,000 Pacific Islanders a year come to do seasonal work on Australians farms, and the Government is expanding the program.
Employment Minister Michaelia Cash told 7.30 the "Government would not tolerate the exploitation of vulnerable foreign workers".
The National Farmers Federation (NFF) said it was very aware of the damage these stories can do to the Seasonal Worker Program's reputation.
"It's very hard to find workers in the first place," said NFF general manager Sarah McKinnon.
"When you have concerns about how people are being treated on Australian farms circulating in the media and social media, that makes it even harder for all the good hardworking farmers to find the workers they need."
The Fijians said last week Mr Yamankol asked them to sign a separate piece work agreement — something the Australian Workers Union said he should have done in the first place.
Of the 20 Fijians who arrived on Seasonal Workers visas in January, 13 refused to sign and have now left the caravan park and quit working for AFS.
Some are staying with Fijian-Australians; others have relocated to another less expensive accommodation.
They have three months left on their seasonal worker visas.
For most, that seems like long time.
"For me, I wish I was back home," Sia Davis said.
"I wouldn't have come. I didn't think it would be like this."