If there has been a breakthrough to income flowing in to the national economy, it’s been because of the seasonal worker schemes called RSE in New Zealand, and it’s Australian equivalent called SWP – Australia’s Seasonal Worker Program.
It is estimated that over $10 million has come in to the country annually as a result of these labor mobility schemes, and in the past 12 months up to 2000 seasonal workers have participated in the schemes.
But the scheme has not been without its problems, only now the problems are getting a bit out of control that there have been debates in Parliament about it, and top Tongan Government officials have been dispatched to Australia to talk with their counterparts as well as the farm employers concerned.
A Noble member of Parliament raised an accusation that Tongan workers are being mistreated in Australia, resulting in some running away or not complying with their work agreements.
The list of complaints ranged from expensive inadequate accommodation (charged to the earnings of the workers), to excessive fees being deducted from the workers’ pay, as well as a lot of misunderstanding on a number of issues.
Most of the complaints come out of the Australia scheme. The New Zealand scheme has its own problems, but it has an advantage that there is a Government representative on ground and a small staff helps manage things.
The Australia scheme does not yet have a representative on ground, but the Tonga Government Ministry handling the seasonal workers’ scheme is looking to place one in Australia soon.
In the latter part of 2015, a seasonal worker in New Zealand was charged with rape. Others have had their contracts revoked due to drunken behavior and too much absence from the job. But, there have been others that after their term of employment have run away in New Zealand and Australia under the persuasion and illegal protection of their resident relatives, thus becoming illegal stayers.
Hon. Fe’ao Vakata, Minister of Internal Affairs, who supervises the seasonal workers scheme, told Parliament that Tongan workers in one farm in Australia are being accused of laziness.
“I have photos of these workers sitting around during work hours, having conversations, and doing nothing,” he said.
He told the House that complaints concerning employers and Tongan workers have reached the Ombudsman in Australia.
“These workers are the very ones who are launching complaints against their employers,” he said.
The Minister said that one man complained to the Fair Work Ombudsman in Australia, and the organization made an investigation of the charges.
He said the complaints did not stand up to the investigation made, and the Ombudsman cleared the Employer from any of the complaints made.
Team leader of the group working at the farm where the complaints were made told the Minister that the complainant had problems from the beginning of the scheme with not doing his job properly, and refusing to comply with requirements.
The team leader also told of situations when Tongan workers took the farm vehicles on drinking sprees, and in a couple of times had accidents with the work vehicles.
One of the complaints made by one of the workers was that there were too many fees paid from his wages. But the Minister made clarification to Parliament that part of the airfares for the workers are taken off their wages.
He also pointed out that accommodation is paid from their weekly wages, as well as tax and insurance.
In their investigation the Fair Work Ombudsman reported that the seasonal workers were getting paid more than the average workers.
But despite the complaints launched against the employers, the Minister told the House that Tongan workers are on demand “because they work hard.”
“Part of the problem, which is understandable, is that the a job is given to a group to complete in 3 weeks, but the group does it in one week, and then they sit around with nothing to do.”
“There are situations where the workers are paid by the hour, and so they need to be engaged hourly, and not just do a job and finish it then sit around and do nothing.”
“Then there are also jobs where the workers are contracted and paid by how many fruit bins they are able to fill up. They are hereby paid not by the hour but by the amount of bins they could fill.”
The Minister in conclusion told the House that there have been up to 2000 seasonal workers sent from Tonga to Australia. The complainants may number about 100, and he hopes that the good work of 1900 workers are not affected.
“We are working together with the Australian authorities and farm employers on this, and we are positive about resolving some of these issues,” the Minister said.