The United Workers Union (UWU) in Australia is hoping for justice for 11 Ni-Vanuatu seasonal female workers who faced sexual harassment while working at a large tomato glasshouse in South Australia.

The women, employed by a labour hire company, performed contract work for Perfection Fresh at the Two Wells Glasshouse.

The allegations of sexual harassment have led to a court case scheduled for the February, 8, 2024, where the women are suing Perfection Fresh for $3.905 million.

According to reports from The Sydney Morning Herald, the workers claim that the alleged conduct of their male colleagues violated the Sex Discrimination Act.

They argue that Perfection Fresh is liable for sexual harassment because the company allowed the conduct to happen and tolerated it by not having effective policies to prevent it.

The company is also accused of not encouraging workers to report sexual harassment and failing to take prompt and efficient action on complaints.

The workers describe their experiences as distressing, humiliating, offensive, anger-inducing, embarrassing, and fear-inducing.

They allege that the conduct involved an abuse of power by superiors against socially, racially, and economically vulnerable employees.

The workers are seeking justice and compensation for the stress, anxiety, loss of enjoyment of life, and other negative impacts they endured.

Caterina Cianni, the Farm Sector Executive Director at the UWU in Australia, is representing the female workers in court.

In an interview with Vanuatu Nightly News, she said they are proud to stand with the Vanuatu workers and noted the importance of raising awareness about sexual harassment and workplace abuses.

Cianni described the case as a significant step against sexual harassment and assault, highlighting the need for a safe workplace for all women. She praised the women for speaking out.

“These women are very brave to have come forward. They are very brave to tell their story and to stand up and speak out against something that has happened to them which is distressing and illegal,” Cianni said.

She believed that the case is the biggest collective complaint about sexual harassment in Australia and commended the women for their courage.

Cianni also pointed out that the union takes the issue seriously and stressed the legal responsibility of employers to provide a safe workplace for all women.

While most of the women are no longer at the Two Wells Glasshouse, having found employment in other safe workplaces across Australia, the court case is an important step towards justice.

Cianni assured support for the women throughout the case, expressing hope for a positive outcome that ensures a safe workplace for all women.

The case also involves a local Australian woman, and Cianni revealed that there have been previous allegations of sexual abuse from women in Taiwan working in the same glasshouse.

She highlighted the seriousness of the issue and the union’s commitment to addressing it.

The Vanuatu National Workers Union (VNWU) and UWU remain committed to protecting and supporting seasonal workers in the workplace.

Tulia R. Wanemut, the President of the VNWU and serving as the Seasonal Workers Program organiser under VNWU and UWU, said VNWU and UWU always fight to make sure seasonal workers are protected and supported in the workplace.

“The Union will always assist women to fight back against Sexual Harassment in the workplace.

The twelve women running this case are leaders who will inspire others to come forward and stamp out this unfair treatment in the workplace. UWU and VNWU will continue to assist, educate, and fight for workers’ rights at the workplace,” Mrs. Wanemut said.

A spokesperson for the Australian High Commission confirmed that “the Australian Government is aware of a Federal Court matter that includes allegations about sexual harassment of female workers involved in the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme.

“The Australian Government takes the welfare of PALM scheme workers seriously and has committed to strengthening worker protections under the PALM scheme deed and guidelines.

“The government has zero tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace.”

The Spokesperson added that as this matter is being considered by the Federal Court, they cannot comment further.

Ni-Vanuatu workers in Australia under the PALM scheme have the same rights and protections as Australian workers, and can access additional avenues of support including a dedicated PALM scheme support service phoneline (1800 51 51 31) and email inbox (palm@dewr.gov.au).

Resources on workplace rights and responsibilities, including the right to a workplace free from violence and sexual harassment, are made available to workers in Bislama.

The Vanuatu Government has also appointed two country liaison officers to support ni-Vanuatu workers in Australia.

Vanuatu Daily Post contacted the Department of Labour, but the Department said it would not comment after being made aware of the story.

Numerous efforts to contact Samson Vili Fare, the High Commissioner of Vanuatu in Canberra, via mobile were unsuccessful, and there was no response to the text message sent.