Activism Bringing Results

seasonal workers

This story is a David and Goliath like battle. It’s the story of 22 men from Vanuatu who came to Australia to work in 2014, some borrowing money to get here. They went home empty handed having been exploited and left with nothing. The case of Maroochy Sunshine Pty Ltd, a labour hire provider, and its director Mr Emmanuel Bani, also illustrates the urgency of implementing a national labour hire-licensing scheme. For several years ACRATH has advocated for such a scheme to bring about systemic change. At the same time ACRATH has doggedly pursued the wages of the 22 workers from Vanuatu who were exploited by Bani.

The United Nations 16 days of activism against gender-based violence begins on 25th November – International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and ends on 10th December – Human Rights Day. It shines a spotlight on the many people exploited in labour around the world, including Australia.

In July 2014, the 22 seasonal workers from Vanuatu came to Australia on the Australian Government’s Seasonal Workers Program. The twenty-two workers were underpaid $77,649 over seven weeks when they were employed to pick fruit and vegetables on six farms in the Lockyer Valley, Sunshine Coast and Bundaberg areas. When they asked Mr Bani for their wages he refused and threatened to refer them to the police and have them deported.

The treatment of these workers was below the basic living standards including, on occasion, being provided one meal a day.  The matter was referred to the Department of Employment, Australian Federal Police, and the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO). The FWO lodged a Statement of claim titled FWO v Maroochy Sunshine Pty Ltd (BRG1035/2015) in the Federal Circuit Court in Brisbane in November 2015. Maroochy Sunshine Pty Ltd was penalised $186,000 and Mr Bani a further $41,300 in March 2017.

In his judgement, Judge Michael Jarrett stated, “Maroochy Sunshine and Mr Bani treated these employees egregiously.”

Mr Bani attended six enforcement hearings at the Federal Circuit Court in Brisbane from June to December 2019. In May 2020, the FWO obtained financial information to establish Mr Bani does not currently have any substantial means to pay the judgement debt. The court closed the proceedings. The workers who had their wages stolen have not been paid the money ordered by the court and Mr Bani has escaped the court-imposed penalty.

The men were back in Vanuatu and the story might have ended there. But it didn’t.

ACRATH has remained in regular contact with the Vanuatu employees and through our advocacy been linked to the Australian High Commission in Vanuatu who have undertaken to help. ACRATHers have ‘met’ by zoom with most of the men. In September the men were given a glimmer of hope when the FairWork Ombudsman’s office agreed to make a very small first instalment payment to each of the men. Also ACRATH campaigners began working with Allens, a large Australian law firm, who offer ACRATH pro bono legal advice. Allens and ACRATH worked together to support the 22 men applying for an Act of Grace payment from the Australian government to cover the rest of the men’s stolen wages.

ACRATH’s Executive Officer Christine Carolan summed up the determination of the team that has worked for years on this case: “We will stay with this until we get justice for these men.”

This case study featured in ACRATH’s submission to the Senate Select Committee on Temporary Migration. To read the submission click here then scroll to submission 108.

For more 16 DaysAgainst Gender-based Violence Campaign information click here.

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