Foreign farmworkers pocket $100 for a week’s work, say whistleblowers, then punished for speaking out

One of Australia’s largest labor hire companies oversaw overseas workers who were pocketing just $100 a week after deducting hundreds of dollars in extra costs.

This is despite the company’s chief executive telling a Senate committee that workers were earning more than expected under the Australian government’s Pacific Labor Scheme.

Two Samoan whistleblowers also told how they felt “punished” for testifying earlier against the labor hire company.

A Victorian strawberry grower told the Senate Select Committee on Job Security on Thursday that a worker named Aleki earned more than $900 for a week’s work.

Sunny Ridge general manager Matthew Collard said Aleki’s take-home pay was significantly reduced when labor leasing company MADEC deducted several costs.

Labor Senator Tony Sheldon, who chaired the hearing, likened the final payment to earning around $3 an hour.

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Farm claims 64-hour week payslip is ‘fabricated’

Mr Collard addressed the committee in response to allegations made at a hearing in February that another Samoan employee, Talipope, had been paid $100 for a 64-hour work week at Sunny Ridge.

Mr Collard disputed that allegation and said the payslip submitted by Talipope to the committee, dated November 2021, was “fabricated”.

“The reason [the payslip] reflected $100 net after MADEC deductions was primarily determined by the 19.7 hours worked. This is a significant variation from the 64 hours that have been claimed,” Collard said.

A man leans on a table in a parliamentary committee room
Samoan worker Talipope testified to working conditions on a Victorian strawberry farm.(ABC News: David Sciasci)

He told Thursday’s hearing that pickers were not employed for several days during the week in question due to weather conditions.

Instead, Mr. Collard claimed that Sunny Ridge provided a gross payout of $501.85 for Talipope that week, but it was reduced to $100, again, after MADEC deductions.

MADEC chief executive Laurence Burt told the hearing that the costs were recovered for several reasons.

“In addition to this, there are weekly living expenses such as accommodation, transportation and health insurance which are also recovered weekly from workers’ wages by their approved employer.”

A MADEC payslip submitted to the investigation showed that a worker’s accommodation was charged at $150 per week.

After the hearing, Senator Sheldon claimed that MADEC also made deductions of $154 for laundry.

Mr Burt said that while employed, Talipope and Aleki averaged a gross salary of $970 a week, receiving an average of $390 a week after deductions.

“The net benefit was 20% more than their job offer letter indicated,” Burt said, referring to gross pay.

The letter of employment is issued to workers in their home country before traveling to Australia under what is now known as Pacific Australia Labor Mobility (PALM).

MADEC is one of Australia’s largest employers of overseas seasonal workers and operates the national Harvest Trail.

Workers punished

Thursday’s hearing also heard how Talipope and Aleki felt they had been “punished” after showing up to give evidence at the February hearing.

Speaking through an interpreter, Talipope said he felt compelled to detail his experience and employment at MADEC.

But when he returned to work at Sunny Ridge, Talipope said he was punished by the employer who stripped him of his shifts and his role as a supervisor.

“It leads me to be fired as a supervisor. I don’t worry about it, all I want is justice,” he said.

The audience also learned that Aleki and Talipope were being redeployed to another farm by MADEC following a request made in January.

The Job Security Inquiry also heard from Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials that evidence from the February hearing had been passed to the Fair Work Ombudsman for investigation.

At the February hearing, National Senator Matt Canavan questioned whether the terms of the Pacific Labor Scheme amounted to “indentured labor”.

According to the government, there are currently over 55,000 Pacific and Timorese workers pre-screened and ready to come to work in Australia.

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