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Australia Urged to Protect the Rights of Migrants Workers from the Pacific

Hundreds of protesters rally outside the Immigration Department offices in Sydney, Australia, Aug. 12, 2019.

Australia is doubling the number of migrant workers it will bring in from the Pacific Islands to address chronic labor shortages in its agricultural sectors. But campaigners believe that wage theft and exploitation are rife within the scheme.

Each year thousands of people from the Pacific Islands are brought to Australia to work on farms picking fruit and vegetables under a migrant labor program.

However, advocates have argued that exploitation of vulnerable foreign workers is widespread.

Sydney lawyer Stewart Levitt is putting together a class action lawsuit to sue the Australian government for damages over the scheme.

He claims many temporary migrants are forced to live in squalid accommodation and are under paid.

“They have been subjected to conditions that are in breach of international labor conventions to which Australia is a party. Their pay slips indicate that even though they are working 40-50 hours a week in very hot and harsh conditions in many instances, they are taking home less than AUD $300 a week,” Levitt said.

But the authorities have defended the enforcement of the rules governing the scheme.

Phil Brezzo is an assistant commissioner at the Australian Border Force. He told Australia's national broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, that mistreatment of migrant workers was not common.

“The Australian Border Force does not believe there is widespread exploitation and wage theft within the seasonal worker program, or the Pacific Labor Scheme. But as with most employment programs, there are a number of small cases in which employers are not meeting their obligations,” Brezzo said.

The scheme allows workers from island nations to work in low and semi-skilled jobs in regional parts of Australia for up to 3 years. Participating countries include Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, East Timor and Vanuatu.

With international backpackers, who often work low and unskilled jobs, locked out of Australia by COVID-19 border restrictions, agricultural lobby groups are urging the government to allow more temporary workers from the Pacific to prevent crops going to waste.