Twelve seasonal workers have died in the Program in the last 12 months and recent media reports have highlighted slavery-like practices like debt bondage, underpayment and terrible working conditions in the horticulture sector generally.
Falepaini Maile, an elder and Church Council Chairperson at Ingleburn Uniting Church in Sydney, set up the Tonga Australia Seasonal Workers Association Incorporated (TASWA) last year in response to calls for help from Tongan seasonal workers throughout Australia's remote regional areas.
Mrs Maile told the recent Parliamentary Committee hearing into a Modern Slavery Act about Pacific workers living in destitution, being charged exorbitant rates to stay in unventilated shipping containers and crowded houses and caravans, and having their movements and activities restricted by labour-hire contractors.
"The only water supply was one tap that provided unsafe, green, slimy water that was used for other domestic needs and definitely not safe for drinking,” said Mrs Maile about one location.
“The conditions of the containers were very unhealthy and unsafe with more than six living in one container paying $165 per head per week in rent.
"At night when women wanted to go to the bathroom, they go out together, it's not safe.”
“Another location had 13 workers living in a two-bedroom house with one bathroom at $120 per person per week.
Commercial lawyer Raj Thanarajah went on to tell the hearing he estimated contractors in illegal fruit picking syndicates were clearing an average of $768,000 a month.
With labour hire contractors offering costs of up to half the price of other picking options, Emma Germano from the Victorian Farmers Federation, herself a vegetable grower, described the dilemma faced by farmers.
“By ensuring that I was employing a legal crew, I condemned our business. I increased the financial pressure on our farm. We went into further debt to keep up.”
“Ultimately the Australian government is our No. 1 labour hire contractor. It's the Australian government that chooses who's able to come to this country to work.
“We're asking that you give us a reliable and productive workforce so that we can employ them directly and be sure that, as Australian growers, we're not exploiting them.”
On the ground in rural communities, a number of Uniting Church congregations are providing support to vulnerable migrant workers.
At St Andrews Uniting Church Mildura, Rev. Siotame Paletu’a’s ministry covers much of the Sunraysia region.
“Our congregation collects food parcels for those in need, and a number of seasonal workers have been attending our Tongan worship services in Irymple.”
“Members of St Luke’s Uniting Church in Robinvale have also been active is offering community and fellowship.”
Bonnie Trevanion the Parish Chairperson of the Uniting Church in Queensland’s North Burnett Region says churches and local government in her area have taken an active role in supporting seasonal workers.
“We have a community cohesion officer for the North Burnett district and pastoral care workers who are in contact with local Tongan congregations.”
“Our local councillors have been very proactive advocates for the care of our Pacific Islander and seasonal workers. Their welfare is taken very seriously here,” she says.
Bonnie is quick to add that many operators, contractors and farm managers are doing the right, fair and just thing.
“Where everyone does the right thing, the benefits are shared. The workers are not only helping and benefitting their own families and villages through the work they are doing here in Australia, but also ours, our rural and regional townships and our countrymen,” says Bonnie.
City-based churches are responding too. Kangaroo Point Uniting Church in South Brisbane hosted a Freedom Links training session on the indicators of modern slavery on Saturday 28 October.
The Minister at Kangaroo Point Rev. Stanley Tuilovoni says his church members are already arranging to reach out to farm workers in the Lockyer Valley in the coming weeks.
A training session convened by the Queensland Community Alliance and delivered by The Salvation Army’s Freedom Partnership confirmed the importance of holding these conversations in church communities. That one meeting alone led to a case referral to the Australian Federal Police.
“I’m enormously heartened by the work of faithful Uniting Church members in our congregations who are reaching out and caring for their vulnerable neighbours,” says Uniting Church President Stuart McMillan.
“The treatment of seasonal workers is a justice issue that directly impacts many of our Pacific Island Uniting Church members as well as our regional church partners.
“Our Church has been at the forefront of advocacy against modern slavery through the work of the Justice and International Mission Unit in the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania and ecumenically through the Australian Freedom Network.”
Advocates from faith-based organisations hope that a Federal Modern Slavery Act and labour-hire licensing laws being considered in a number of states will lead to better conditions for temporary migrant workers in the near future.
A commitment to greater education and awareness of modern slavery is also needed.
Alison Rahill from The Salvation Army’s Freedom Partnership points out that despite widespread evidence of exploitation, there have been no prosecutions under the Commonwealth Criminal Code for slavery-related offences in the farm, labour hire or meat and fruit processing sectors.
“When they rolled out anti-slavery laws in the UK, one of the first priorities was educating police about the indicators of slavery,” says Ms Rahill.
“The introduction of these laws in Australia needs adequate resourcing so traffickers can be held accountable under the law.”
Even with a Modern Slavery Act, Ms Rahill says the role of churches will remain central to detecting and responding to situations of modern slavery.
“Local churches are often the only place victims can go to access social, practical and spiritual support. Many times people with their eyes, ears and hearts open are the key that releases the enslaved from their desperate circumstances.”