EXCLUSIVE: When an ex-rugby player collapsed under an apple tree last month, his death took the toll for Pacific Islander fatalities on Australian farms to 14 in six years.
Jone Roqica, a former Fijian army captain and prison officer who once played rugby for his country, collapsed while picking apples in regional Victoria last month.
His death, on a crisp 12-degree Saturday towards the end of the harvest near the Goulburn Valley township of Shepparton, came as a shock to his cousin, Dave Raulini.
He describes the 52-year-old father to SBS News as a “really disciplined and very fit” teetotaler who once ran out on the field for Fiji during a Rugby Sevens tour of the UK.
“How can he pass away with his bag of apples?” Mr Raulini said. “Just passed away down below.”
Mr Roqica’s death – of an apparent heart attack – was the 14th known Pacific Islander fatality on an Australian farm in just six years, or 15th since 2009.
There has been no finding that Mr Roqica’s death was caused by overwork or unsafe practices, but it comes at a time when the agricultural sector - which is deeply reliant on workers from the region to fill its lower-skilled jobs - has been plagued by concerns about how it treats the thousands flocking to Australia each year.
Alison Rahill, an anti-slavery advocate from the Salvation Army, has travelled around the country and heard allegations from workers including beatings, withholding of wages and intimidation.
“There are slavery-like practices happening definitely in the agriculture sector,” Ms Rahill said.
“I’ve probably just seen the tip of the iceberg.”
Mr Roqica's death was the only one of the 14 not to occur under the Seasonal Worker Program, the federal government’s official scheme for recruiting Pacific Islanders. His cousin Mr Raulini had sponsored him to be in Australia.
But the growing seasonal worker death tally has led to scrutiny of the same issues. Families and advocates have raised concerns about poor living conditions and inadequate accommodation, combined with gruelling and often poorly paid work.
On a farm not far from the one where Mr Roqica died, a group of workers from Vanuatu last month alleged they faced dangerous working conditions and were underpaid by a labour hire contractor. The firm involved, Agri Labour Australia, has since been suspended from the program.
Former fruit picker Waisake counts among the Fijians drawn to the floodplains of the Goulburn Valley, which supplies a bounty of apples, pears and stone fruit to the Australian market.
But the 31-year-old said the reality of his last job never matched a middleman’s promise of $30 a bin picking apples and an assurance of modest but private accommodation.
“I lived in a caravan that was supposed to be for one person, and four person was living in there,” he told SBS News. Waisake said he quit after working up to seven days a week for what amounted to just $16 a bin.
He said many of his fellow workers went into debt to get to Australia and felt exploited and angry: “Most of them can’t do nothing because they’re just stuck, there’s no one there to help them.”
SBS News put Waisake’s claims to the alleged middleman – a Fijian national living in Australia. He denied sourcing workers from Fiji, underpaying them or misrepresenting living and working conditions.
But Waisake said workers were locked in a stressful cycle of early starts on little food, where a hard day’s work was followed by poor quality rest.
“It’s very unhealthy. I believe there will be more deaths if this carries on.”
Mr Roqica was not supposed to be working on the day he died. After putting in five days at a packing shed, he took up the option of an extra Saturday’s work on a neighbouring farm.
“He said that there was family commitments in Fiji, he has to send money so he needed go and work, and pick apples that day,” his cousin Mr Raulini said.
A small memorial of flowers marks the spot where he collapsed, the ground strewn with the fruit he was there to collect.
A WorkSafe Victoria spokeswoman confirmed the agency looked into a death on a farm near Shepparton last month.
“When making inquiries, WorkSafe examines factors which may pose a risk to workers’ health and safety,” she said.
“For privacy reasons it would be inappropriate to comment further.”
An Australian Workers Union spokesman for its Victorian branch told SBS News it “remains very concerned about the treatment of migrant fruit pickers in the Goulburn Valley - especially around Shepparton” and is “working with the Victorian Government to try and improve accommodation and working conditions”.
Third-generation farmer Steve Vigliaturo, who runs the property where Mr Roqica lived and spent his working weeks, said he treated workers fairly and the living conditions were adequate.
“I think the amenities I have are pretty good for what’s there,” Mr Vigliaturo said.
He said all the wages - paid in cash - were “on the books” and Mr Roqica, who he described as “a nice, gentle bloke” was reimbursed fairly.
“He was paid an hourly rate. He was on pretty good money, actually.”
“Just one of those things, I suppose,” he said of his death. “No one knew he was sick, and just had a heart attack. Pretty sad thing for most people around here, actually.”
A spokesman for Workplace Minister Craig Laundy said any workplace fatality was a tragedy “and the minister offers his condolences to Mr Roqica’s family and friends.
A Migrant Workers’ Taskforce, chaired by Allan Fels, has been tasked with examining labour hire practices and was considering a range of options to address unscrupulous practices, he said.
“The government will consider the views of the taskforce carefully in determining whether changes in this particular form of work are needed to address the broader issue of worker exploitation,” the spokesman said.
In the caravan where Mr Roqica lived, bottles of drinking water are stacked behind a single bed. Thin curtains hang across the windows, elsewhere they’re boarded up. It’s empty; the apple season wrapped, until next year.
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