Some 16 people have lost their lives while participating in the Australian government’s seasonal workers program since the onset of the pandemic. These figures have fuelled accusations of inhumane working and living conditions and exploitation within the program, prompting concerns about the safety and well-being of Pacific Islanders recruited under this initiative.
The spike in fatalities is particularly alarming, considering that there were no recorded deaths between 2018 and 2019 and only three between 2017 and 2018. The seasonal workers program, active since 2012, has seen a total of 30 worker deaths on the two visas designed to address labour shortages, mainly in farming sectors where workers pick fruits and vegetables.
It is understood that at least seven of the 16 fatalities were linked to road accidents. A tragedy in April last year was reported as a suicide.
A seasonal worker from the Solomon Islands lost his life in a car accident in April, prompting his family to advocate for stricter regulations and better education for workers coming to Australia. They stressed on the need for governments to ensure that seasonal workers are adequately prepared for life in Australia, including comprehensive road safety lessons. Recent allegations of unfair pay, poor working conditions, and excessive deductions on wages, including charges of $14.80 per week for water, have added to the program’s criticism.
Dr. Rochelle Bailey from the Australian National University, who interviewed 500 workers during the pandemic, cited various reasons for the increased deaths, including not only road accidents but also mental and physical exhaustion. Bailey highlighted serious barriers to workers seeking medical help, exacerbated by the challenges of moving between different farms and a lack of confidence in communication with employers.
The situation appears equally concerning in the Pacific Labour Mobility Scheme (PALM), where government data reveals a fourfold increase in deaths, reaching 29 in the last financial year. The scheme, facing long-standing reports of poor working conditions and exploitation, now confronts demands for urgent reform.
As these revelations unfold, the pressure is mounting on the Australian government to address the issues within its seasonal workers programs and implement measures to ensure the safety and fair treatment of those participating in them.