Vanuatu government launches inquiry into labour schemes after testimony from workers in Australia

The inquiry comes after Vanuatu seasonal workers made allegations of bullying and exploitative working conditions in the Australian scheme

The Vanuatu government has launched an inquiry into the country’s labour mobility programs, including the seasonal worker program in Australia, citing concerns around safety.

The inquiry comes in the wake of testimony from Vanuatu seasonal workers in Australia to a parliamentary hearing earlier this month, in which they alleged they had experienced bullying, exploitative working conditions, poor housing arrangements and lack of support services while under the scheme.

Australia’s Pacific labour mobility initiatives – the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) and Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) – support Pacific and Timorese workers to take up jobs in rural and regional Australia, particularly in the agricultural sector.

There are roughly 4,500 Vanuatu workers in Australia under the scheme based on the 2019 and 2020 numbers by the Vanuatu government.

One Vanuatu citizen said that while working on the scheme he had received just $100 a week and had had $30 a week deducted from that amount, with no explanation of what the deductions were for, which led to the Australian senator Matt Canavan calling the scheme “tantamount to slavery”.

Others, such as Stephen Howes, the director of the Development Policy Centre and a professor of economics at the Crawford School of Public Policy, have defended the scheme, saying that it provides huge economic benefit to individuals and communities in the Pacific, and that there are safeguards in place to protect workers from abuse, and that research shows there is less exploitation for workers in the Seasonal Worker Programme than for backpackers working in agricultural jobs under another scheme.

After the testimony to the Australian Senate, Vanuatu’s opposition leader, Ralph Regenvanu, tweeted he had “urged our government to seek to revise the agreements between the Vanuatu and Australian governments” concerning the schemes. “Vanuatu Government has its duty to safeguard its citizens.”

“There have been issues regarding the safety of our workers, and this is one of the issues that will be addressed in the inquiry,” said Jason Daniels, the secretary to the Vanuatu parliament’s committee on economics and foreign policy.

Daniels said that the inquiry was not set up because of the testimony in Australian parliament about the program, but would consider that testimony, along with other submissions made to the committee.

“One of the challenges that the committee is looking into is the cost of applying for the programme... We also want to understand the benefits to Australia and New Zealand compared to benefits to Vanuatu and how we can address this.”

In addition to the call for submissions, the parliamentary committee will also visit the outer islands of Vanuatu to speak to families and individuals impacted by the scheme.

Sergio came to Australia to work on a seasonal worker program. But some weeks he'd walk away with only $70 in his paycheck.

Farms across Australia are treating Pacific Island workers like slaves. And the Government hasn't just turned a blind eye - they've expanded the program.

— Senator Tony Sheldon (@senator_sheldon) February 2, 2022

Regenvanu said that many of the issues arising from the scheme could have been addressed if the 2019 Labour Mobility Policy for Vanuatu was implemented by the government.

“The policy addressed issues dealing with superannuation …, better worker preparedness, enhancing MOU to ensure more protection for workers in Australia and New Zealand, social cohesion, family life in Vanuatu, upskilling of workforce and also better integration back into Vanuatu,” said Regenvanu, who introduced the policy as foreign minister.

Pacific labour mobility researcher Tupai Fotuosamoa Jackson said reviewing the programme and examining its impact on society was important, but that participants in the programmes could be afraid to participate honestly in the review, for fear of losing their job.

“For the worker, there is an obligation to remain on the programme and there is a fear that your opportunity to continue will be impacted.”

Jackson, who has published research into the impact of the seasonal scheme on family life in the Pacific, said that each government needs to consider what their threshold is.

“How many people will they permit to be part of the programme and what is the impact of their absence to those left behind?”


Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Vanuatu elects new prime minister as country reels from devastating cyclone
Bob Loughman, an MP from the island of Tanna, will become the next prime minister of the south Pacific nation

Tess Newton Cain

20, Apr, 2020 @6:24 AM

Article image
Without seasonal workers, Australia may face a hungry summer | Michael Rose
With not enough workers to pick the upcoming harvest, Australia faces potential food shortages, and its farmers face economic devastation

Michael Rose

03, Aug, 2020 @10:00 PM

Article image
Vanuatu pioneers digital cash as disaster relief
Vulnerable to cyclones, volcanoes and the impacts of climate change, the Pacific archipelago is using blockchain technology to provide aid money directly to families recovering from natural disasters

Dan McGarry in Port Vila

06, Nov, 2020 @8:00 PM

Article image
Migration firm investigated over ads promising Vanuatu passports
Global-Migrate accused of promoting access to travel document without the government’s authority, although advertisements ‘not unlawful in themselves’

Ben Doherty Pacific editor

03, Feb, 2021 @7:00 PM

Article image
Vanuatu goes to polls by air, sea and road in snap election after lightning campaign
First-time candidates vie with incumbents for 52 seats after government dissolved ‘Red Roof’ parliament to ward off no-confidence vote

Ginny Stein in Port Vila

12, Oct, 2022 @6:00 PM

Article image
Vanuatu, one of the last Covid hermit nations, to open to tourists after two years
The tourism-dependent Pacific country will reopen with almost no restrictions in July, though there are concerns about lack of airline deals

Ginny Stein in Port Vila

15, Jun, 2022 @2:03 AM

Article image
From Vanuatu law school to the Hague: the fight to recognise climate harm in international law
Vanuatu is leading a campaign to have the international court of justice issue an opinion on climate change – which could have huge legal ramifications

Kate Lyons

19, Jun, 2022 @8:00 PM

Article image
The Vanuatu island in the eye of the storm
Pentecost Island, devastated by Cyclone Harold in April, has been left a silent shadow of its former self. But its people endure

Dan McGarry

05, Jun, 2020 @10:00 PM

Article image
Chinese vessels detained by Vanuatu, accused of fishing illegally
Crew on two vessels face further investigation in Pacific nation, a month after similar incident in Palau

Dan McGarry in Port Vila and Ben Doherty Pacific Editor

25, Jan, 2021 @7:00 PM

Article image
Surge in passport sales delivers Vanuatu a record budget surplus
Economy devastated by Covid shutdowns and a destructive cyclone, but citizenships-for-sale are keeping the country afloat

Dan McGarry in Port Vila

20, Aug, 2020 @10:00 PM