Prominent Australian labour hire company is un- der investigation amid allegations Pacific Islanders hired to work on Queensland farms are being left without shifts, forcing them into homelessness and leaving them without money to return home.
The ABC can reveal the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations have separately launched investigations into Tasmanian labour hire company Linx Employment. It comes as Linx Employment staff, who came to Queensland’s Bundaberg region on seasonal visas under the federal government’s labour mobility scheme, allege they have been without employment and income for several months. The Australian Workers Union (AWU) claims about 190 workers from around the country have come forward with complaints about Linx Employment. Of those complaints, 80 were from workers in the Bundaberg region, according to the AWU. Linx Employment workers, who spoke to the ABC on the condition of anonymity, claim it has been several months since they have received their legally contracted 30 hours of work each week. Workers also claim they have been threatened with visa terminations by the company. Some workers who spoke with the ABC are living in tents or squalid conditions as they cannot afford to pay for the accommodation provided to them. Others have left farms in search of other work or want to go home but have no money for flights. The AWU claims Linx Employment have threatened and bullied vulnerable workers, with many employees describing the treatment as akin to “slave labour”. Pacific Islander advocates have described the situation as “modern-day blackbirding”, calling for the foreign labour hire sector to be reformed. Linx Employment did not respond to multiple requests from the ABC for comment.
Claims workers homeless, seeking food
A Linx Employment worker from Papua New Guinea (PNG), who was too afraid to be named, told the ABC she had been without work for months. “At this very moment, I don’t have a dollar in my account,” she said. “I came here to work for money, not roam around like a street vendor on the street, like a nomad looking for a place and food everywhere. It shouldn’t be [like this],” she said. She said she had planned to save money while working in Australia before returning to her family in PNG. The woman said she was first placed in Tasmania but was moved by the company to Queensland on the promise of receiving farm work. She said when she arrived, she waited in her accommodation, but was not offered work in the region. “So, I got fed up and ran away,” she said.
No money for family, workers say
Another employee told the ABC he had been employed by Linx Employment since 2022, but said he was told to go home to Vanuatu as there was not work for “short-term workers” only “long-term workers”. The man claimed he had been out of work since early June, and alleged Linx Employment threatened to cancel his visa. “If I have money and … the contractor told me you have to go home, I would be glad to go home,” he said. “I would be happy to go back home but at the moment we don’t have any dollar in our savings. “I decided to come to this program because I wanted to change my family life, especially our (way of) living.” The man spoke with the ABC alongside another Linx Employment worker, who could not speak English fluently. He said he and the other worker were both saddened by the situation. “We have kids, we have a wife back home, they need money,” he said. “We need money to live, and also our kids they go to school, they need school fees, we came here to build a new house for our family.” The man said many of his fellow workers were too afraid to come forward for fear of repercussions from Linx Employment.
Reforms to seasonal work
The Australian government’s Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme allows Australian businesses to hire workers from Pacific Island nations on temporary work visas. The scheme — which has longer-term employment options or seasonal options — is designed to fill agricultural labour gaps across rural and regional Australia and allow workers to financially provide for their families and develop professional skills. The scheme recruits workers on the basis they will be given a minimum number of hours each week. In the past year nearly 30,000 people have come to Australia under the PALM scheme. Reforms to the program were introduced in April last year to increase protections for workers who come to Australia under the scheme. According to the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, between October 2020 and June 2023, more than 18,730 PALM scheme workers arrived in Queensland. In June this year, there were nearly 14,460 PALM workers in Queensland, the department said. Approximately 1,050 were based in the Bundaberg region.
AWU Queensland branch secretary, Stacey Schinnerl, said the union was “deeply concerned” for the welfare of Linx Employment workers in the Bundaberg region. “Our members at Linx (Employment) have told us management withhold workers visas, refuse to provide pay slips and resort to bullying and threats to send workers home when concerns are raised,” Ms Schinnerl said. “Time and again, our members have told stories of Linx (Employment) management making excessive deductions from workers’ pay for sub-standard accommodation. “Many Linx (Employment) workers were left with no work for six weeks in May and June, so they had to rely on food from local charities. That’s just disgraceful. “Linx (Employment) workers feel they have been treated like slaves and we are assisting them to find another approved employer who will comply with Australian law.”
Department meets with workers
A spokesperson for the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations told the ABC the department was investigating allegations relating to Linx Employment in Bundaberg and was engaging with workers to support them throughout the investigation. “As part of its investigation, the department travelled to Bundaberg in June 2023 to inspect the accommodation in question and met directly with the workers to discuss their concerns,” the spokesperson said. “The department continues to work with the employer to rectify identified issues.” The department declined to comment further on the investigation. The Fair Work Ombudsman’s office also confirmed it was conducting an investigation in relation to Linx Employment, but declined to provide any detail while the matter was ongoing.
Advocating for workers’ rights
Modern slavery survivor and Pacific Islander advocate Moe Turaga is an advisory panel member at the Office of the NSW Anti-slavery Commissioner and a participant in the Salvation Army Australia’s Lived Experience Engagement Program. Mr Turaga has been working in Bundaberg for several months after receiving complaints from Linx Employment workers. He said Pacific Islanders who came to the region through Linx Employment were now relying on charities for food. “The stories that are coming from these workers is absolutely disgusting, really,” Mr Turaga said. “Especially workers that are here to answer the call for the horticultural industry. “They are very much at a homeless situation … they can’t buy food because they haven’t really got any money at the moment.” Mr Turaga claimed Linx Employment workers had contacted him alleging they had been without employment for two months and had spent their remaining savings on accommodation and food. He said workers claimed they were told to return home while still in the middle of their contracts, but many could not afford it. “(Workers are) trying to tell Linx (Employment) that they haven’t worked for two months, that whatever savings they have they’ve spent,” Mr Turaga said. He said the seasonal-worker system needed reform as Pacific Islander workers were necessary for Australia’s primary industries. “If the countries that are sending these labourers over here … take all their workers back from the meatworks, from hospitality, especially the horticultural sector, it will cripple Australia,” he said.
Dreams of a better life
Bundaberg pastoral carer and long-term Pacific Islander advocate Geoffrey Smith helps PALM scheme workers in Bundaberg with translation, accommodation and food. Mr Smith, whose work previously contributed to an Australian Border Force investigation, said he had also been contacted by seasonal workers employed by Linx Employment who had been out of work and sent home. “These people come over here because they had a dream,” he said. “They wanted their children to have a better life than they did.”
•ABBEY HALTER is the rural reporter for ABC Wide Bay based in Bundaberg. The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of this newspaper.