The scheme, introduced last year after much toing and froing by the Australian government, provides short-term contract labour for Australian farmers and income opportunities for people from PNG and the Pacific.
PNG Attitude has previously reported on problems with the scheme, but now they seem even more serious than they seemed a couple of months back.
Rose Kranz, from the Simbu Province in Papua New Guinea, returned home the other day after three months work at a fruit-growing property in north-west Victoria.
The return home was sullied by Rose having to fork out $250 for the taxi fare from the farm to the nearest bus station after her employer was adamant that "our transport can't be used for personal trips".
This was after Rose had explained she needed to return home urgently for the haus krai as her step-father, Joe Bemu, had just died in Bougainville.
“So much for compassion at Easter,” remarked Peter Kranz.
Rose was engaged in piece-work and, if it was determined that the weather or fruit conditions were not right for picking, she and her co-workers earned nothing but, of course, still had to meet their expenses.
There were no toilet facilities at the picking site and, when Rose complained, she was directed to “just go behind some bushes”.
Not the kind of hospitality we normally associate with Australian rural life.
But the overarching issue concerns the financial arrangements that underpin the scheme, causing PNG Attitude to wonder whether there may be abuses of naïve and vulnerable Pacific labour under a program endorsed by the Australian government.
Rose’s final payslips, one of which is reproduced at the top of this story with the employer’s name obscured, show she netted around $1,800 for three months work after deductions were made for items including an accommodation bond, the rent of an old caravan, electricity, 'uniforms' and transport.
You'll notice the payslip is in another person's name, which has been crossed out and had ‘Rose’ inserted in its place. A little less formality than would usually be required by the Australian Taxation Office.
The slips also show Rose’s year-to-date total income to be more than $9,000 – despite the fact she has never worked in Australia before.
Her total income this year is, in fact, the $1,800 she earned from fruit picking
The slips show Rose making superannuation contributions - but she says she has no knowledge of belonging to a superannuation fund.
They also show her paying tax, but in the other person's name.
As Peter Kranz asks, “What is going on here?”
“My wife was a legitimate worker on a permanent spouse subclass 801 visa, was looking to earn a reasonable income and was prepared to work hard for it,” Kranz told me.
“This was her first job in Australia, and she is extremely disillusioned with her experiences of fruit picking and the BS of employment contractors.”
And $1,800 doesn’t seem much return for three months work when the Workstay website claims “the average hourly rate of pay for [casual] horticulture work is currently between $15 and $20 per hour. Many fruit picking jobs are paid at piece rates - also called ‘contract’ - which allows you to make better than the average hourly rate once you've got your speed up.”
Kranz says he is “feeling out of my depth” about the issues involved.
It seems like a job for the ATO and Fair Work Australia as well as the Department of Foreign Affairs. And one could also ask what the Australian Workers Union is doing. And new parliamentary secretary, Matt Thistlethwaite.
PNG Attitude is not suggesting Rose Kranz’s erstwhile employers have breached any laws – but there are at least some untidy threads here that need sorting out.