December 18, 2017

Seasonal Worker Programme: Tongan father was living on $10 a week

Tongan farmer Vaea Mahina came to Australia in September 2012 on the Seasonal Worker Programme to make a better life for his wife and their eight children.

Just months later, on December 7, Mahina collapsed on the NSW berry farm where he was working.

Mahina was in Australia on the Government-run Seasonal Worker Programme, and became one of the first Pacific Islanders to die on the program, which started in 2012.

After 2½ months of work, the 45-year-old father-of-eight had just $900 (US$688) in his bank account when he died, his cousin Telesia Lavaki claimed.

Mahina’s pay slips from his employer, Owen Pacific Workforce, show in one week he earn $379 (US$290) but took home just $53 (US$40) after deductions by his employer.

Lavaki said in the week he earned a little over $50 (US$38), he sent most of this home, leaving him with $10 (US$7.65) a week to live and he struggled to buy adequate food.

His pay slips also reveal he was charged: $120 (US$91) for accommodation a week, which Lavaki claims was a converted shipping container he shared with up to eight other men, and $77 (US$55) a week for transport; $31.50 (US$24) a week for visa fees; and $17.40 (US$13.31) a week, totalling more than $120(US$91), for “sundry expenses”, which Lavaki was told paid for newspapers.

A pay slip for the period ­between November 26, 2012 and December 2, 2012, seen by The Weekly Times, showed Mahina’s year-to-date earnings at $5975.50 (US$4,573) but after deductions, he received just $1471 (US$1,125).

A company representative for Owen Pacific Workforce said its workers were housed in air-conditioned council-approved accommodation at a holiday park which was regularly inspected by the Department of Employment and is still being used today.

The spokesman said deductions were taken on the advice of the then Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

The spokesman said he “immediately ceased” deducting for sundries when the department advised against it.

Lavaki, who lives in Brisbane, had to fight for two years to receive a death insurance payout from his superannuation fund for his family.

Mahina, who farmed taro, yam and pineapple at his plantation in Tonga, was found to have died from a heart attack.

Lavaki said her cousin was fit and healthy and had passed a health check in Tonga before coming to Australia, a requirement of the programme.

“I think my cousin was dehydrated, his nutrition was bad from the food he was eating ... I saw the photos. It’s not him,” she said.

She believed the employers the Federal Government approve to bring in the workers need to be better regulated.

The Owen Pacific Workforce spokesman said they visited Mahina’s family in Tonga, and made a donation of his “estimated earnings” to the family and later employed their oldest son.

“I felt so badly for her, farewelling her husband with the hope of a brighter future for her family only to receive the devastating news of his passing 10 weeks later,” the spokesman said.

A Department of Employment spokesman said the ­Seasonal Worker Program “has robust safeguards in place to protect the rights of participating workers” and every allegation raised was referred to relevant authorities.