MONTE IRVINE, HOST: All morning we have been discussing the situation with the Pacific Islanders who are working here in Inverell out at Bindaree Beef and are working for a labour hire company by the name of Meat Processors and what seems to be allegations of exploitation and price gouging when it comes to their rent.
On the line now I have Pat Conroy. He is the Shadow Minister for the Pacific and International Development. He is on the Labor side of this discussion. Good morning Pat, how are you this morning?
PAT CONROY, SHADOW MINISTER FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND THE PACIFIC: I’m fine Monte, and you?
IRVINE: I’m well thank you. Thank you so much for your time this morning to discuss this. My first question is, is this a systemic problem for this workforce that’s coming from the Pacific Islands?
CONROY: Well we’ve seen a number of cases of clear exploitation and abuse so it’s something where the Government is failing to make sure there’s proper oversight of this program. This program is really important - it’s a great way of getting money back into the Pacific, it’s a great way of filling gaps in our labour market with our Pacific neighbours, but it has to work properly and not have this level of exploitation.
IRVINE: Because to be clear, the idea is that we bring these workers to Australia, they learn a trade, they learn skills, yes they’re then able to send money back home to their families in the Pacific Islands. It’s almost like it’s a form of foreign aid, but it’s foreign aid with benefits isn’t it?
CONROY: That’s a great summary of it. So for example the average seasonal worker from the Pacific will send home around $2,000 every six months, so that’s huge when you consider that a third of the Pacific live on less than $1.90USD a day. So this is a key way of providing extra foreign aid to some of the poorest nations in the world, building our diplomatic relationships with those countries and also helping local employers. But it’s got to work properly otherwise if people are exploited, then it makes Australia look really bad.
IRVINE: Absolutely. Now Pat, should labour hire companies such as Meat Processors and their parent companies such as Food Industry Group, should they be subject to a separate form of investigation or even inquiry by the Federal Government?
CONROY: I think there absolutely needs to be a Federal inquiry here because this was supposed to be a very well-regulated labour scheme. So for example, the Federal Government has to register all the employers that participate in this scheme. There are only 65 employers that are allowed to bring Pacific labourers out in this scheme. So it’s not as if you have to oversee thousands of employers - you’ve only got 65 to make sure they’re doing the right thing.
So something has clearly failed here. The Federal Government is paying a company called Palladium $77 million to oversee this scheme and make sure that these employers are doing the right thing. And I did a quick back of the envelope – this company, which Julie Bishop joined the Board of after she left Parliament, is paid $43,000 per Pacific worker to make sure these workers aren’t being exploited. They earn more than the workers do off them, and they’re clearly failing in their job.
IRVINE: So hang on, the Federal Government has shifted responsibility for this scheme to a private company who then oversees other private companies to bring these workers here?
CONROY: That’s exactly right. They get paid $17 million a year – the contract is $77 million over four and a half years – and that works out because we’ve only got 386 workers in the scheme at the moment because it’s been very slow to start. But this company that’s got Julie Bishop on the board, a former Liberal Foreign Minister, is being paid the equivalent of $43,000 a year to make sure that each Pacific Islander in this scheme is not being exploited. That is an enormous waste of money. If they can’t do the basic job of stopping workers being exploited, then the contract should be ripped up.
IRVINE: Now, Adam Marshall our local member has said that this is shocking and a bad look for Inverell and everyone I’ve spoken to has agreed. Now, do you think that this situation, this shocking situation, the allegations of exploitation that we are seeing here, do you think this would have come to light without their shifts being reduced the way they were from COVID-19?
CONROY: Well I think it made the level of exploitation more obvious when these Samoans had their pay cut significantly but all of these deductions continued. I think it just made it even more obvious. But to be honest, even pre-COVID, even if these workers were working full-time at Bindaree Beef, they’ve been charged $1,350 a week in rent for a four-bedroom house that’s probably worth about $340 a week in rent. It’s an enormous level of exploitation even if they’re working full-time. It’s a disgrace, and I’m very relieved that it’s come to light because we need a full-blown inquiry into this scheme.
IRVINE: Well I think you are right, and that $1,350 was split amongst nine people which is still not right. I’m not saying that’s right by any means of the imagination. The actual investigation that I’ve done - the previous tenants in one of these houses was only paying $270 a week rent and now the owner of that, plus the real estate, are looking at $1,350. I think that could mean a totally separate investigation needs to happen.
CONROY: Yes, I think there’s a fair argument for that and it’s just abuse and exploitation under any name taking advantage of temporary migrants to gouge them. I think that’s a disgrace and I think the labour hire company needs to account for its actions and I think the Government needs to get onto this quick smart. We’ve just heard deafening silence from the Foreign Minister who administers the scheme.
IRVINE: Now Pat, something else that goes along with this, what kind of damage does this do to Australia’s reputation in the Pacific?
CONROY: Well this is one of the key ways we reach out to the Pacific and work with them to grow them economically and to build our partnerships. When we see these abuse cases, it damages our reputation very significantly because they just think that we are in it to exploit these workers, that we’re not fair dinkum about a genuine partnership in the region, and this is of tremendous significance. This is a region that is of fundamental importance to us, it’s our closest neighbours. PNG for example is only three kilometres from Australia, and we’ve got other nations showing a lot more interest in being the partner of choice in the region. For example, China is spending a lot of money and political capital to become the partners of these nations. So when Australia looks bad through cases of exploitation, that makes it easier for other countries whose interests aren’t always lined up with Australia to come in and build their influence. So it’s hard to overestimate the impact of this sort of exploitation on our diplomatic reputation.
IRVINE: Absolutely. Now Pat, we’ve heard there’s going to be multiple investigations happening. We have heard that Bindaree Beef are going to ask for an independent investigation between the relationship they have with the labour hire company Meat Processors. We’ve also heard that the union – I spoke to the union before you – the union are doing an investigation as well. I’ve also heard that DFAT is going to be in Inverell to do an investigation this week as well. It seems with three different organisations involved in what’s meant to be an independent investigation, it would seem like it needs to go further. It does seem like it needs to go into an independent Federal inquiry rather than just an investigation. Would you agree with that?
CONROY: I would, and I’ll be talking to my colleagues about how we progress it – whether it’s an inquiry by the Fair Work Ombudsman or an inquiry by the Senate. I think more action needs to be taken because clearly this isn’t a one off. We’ve seen these instances in other cities and towns around the country.
There’s a systemic failure here, like DFAT can talk about coming in and checking on this stuff – they literally only have to oversee 386 Pacific Islanders in this scheme. The fact that they weren’t checking beforehand, the fact that they’re paying a private company $77 million to do the checking for them who has clearly failed means that we need a whole scale inquiry into what went wrong and how to fix it because this is wrong for the workers involved, it’s wrong for the company involved, and it’s wrong for the nation.
IRVINE: Absolutely. Look Pat Conroy, thank you so much for your time this morning. It’s been very informative to have your take on this. I will, just before you go, say that I did invite your opposite number as well as the Minister for Industrial Relations and the Minister for DFAT, I have invited them all on to get their point of view. I am yet to hear back from them as well.
CONROY: Well that speaks volumes. I’d be interested in their response.
IRVINE: Certainly. Thank you so much for your time Pat.
CONROY: Have a good day.