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

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…

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