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Growing chorus calls for overhaul of worker program

CATCHING UP: Allan Mahoney says it seems like the industry is always
CATCHING UP: Allan Mahoney says it seems like the industry is always "two steps behind” rogue operators. Max Fleet BUN170215BLU4

BUNDABERG'S horticulture industry has condemned rogue operators on the "flawed" Seasonal Worker Program who they say are damaging the industry and exploiting vulnerable workers.

A Courier-Mail and Weekly Times special investigation yesterday revealed 13 Pacific Islanders had died on the government-run Seasonal Worker Program since 2009 with claims extreme neglect allegedly contributed to a number of deaths and serious injuries.

Designed to alleviate labour shortages on Australian farms and provide foreign aid for the Pacific nations, the program, which is widely used throughout the Bundaberg and North Burnett, began as a pilot in 2009 and became official in 2012. Twelve of the deaths have happened since 2012 and at least seven of those were in Queensland.

Allan Mahoney , the chairman of both the Queensland Horticulture Council and the Bundaberg Fruit and Vegetable Growers, said many in the industry would suffer if the program was axed, as has been threatened by some fed-up Pacific nations.

Mr Mahoney said the program was used throughout the Wide Bay Burnett with farmers in Bundaberg, Childers, Gayndah and Mundubbera benefiting

He said the industry had been working hard to stamp out illegal activity but it seemed they were "always two steps behind" the rogue operators.

"We've got some great stories with the islander project around our region when they're working direct for farms," he said.

"But there are guys that have fallen through the cracks and are caught by this element of contractors who shop them around.

"Some are taking advantage before they even get here - we've heard stories of some contractors taking $1500 a head before they even get here and this is a lifetime of savings to some of these people."

Rachel Mackenzie, the chief advocate for Growcom, the peak representative body for Queensland horticulture, said the SWP was "flawed" and in need of a serious shake up.

"It's problematic and our concern is there's too much effort put into the front end of the program so there's all these hoops people have to jump through to become an approved employer which makes it very difficult for farmers themselves to do it directly," she said.

"There's no enforcement down the line - what sort of process is that?"

Falepaini Maile, president of the Tonga Australia Seasonal Workers Association, also said the SWP needed an overhaul.

"It must increase its proactivity out in the field, in the farms and where seasonal workers live and work, in monitoring, investigating and reporting practices and to have these farmers and labour hire contractors accountable for their actions and bear the consequences."

Ms Maile said many employers did not provide pastoral care to seasonal workers and it should instead be provided by independent bodies so workers could air and resolve grievances.


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