Rude awakening for sleepy farm workers
With sunrise still another three hours away, the convoy of government cars and buses rolled un-noticed into Pemberton just after 3am yesterday.
Authorities were hoping the early start would give them the element of surprise and it was a tactic that would work like a charm.
Their target was a motel complex in the heart of the South West town and the dozens of police and Australian Border Force officers taking part quickly had it surrounded.
Moments later, the early morning silence was shattered by the sound of fists banging on doors.
“Police. Open the door now or we will break it down,” officers yelled as the group of about 40 suspected illegal foreign workers inside began to wake and realise what was going on.
Most sat quietly on the floor of their dirty rooms looking dazed and slightly confused as Border Force officers told them they were being taken into immigration custody.
For one man, the threat of deportation was obviously to much and he darted out through a back door, only to run straight into the arms of a young police officer stationed outside.
The weeks of careful planning paid off handsomely and it was not long before more illegal workers were in custody after being found at houses in the town.
The only downside was that one of the operation’s primary targets, a senior member of the labour hire syndicate supplying illegal workers to local farmers, was nowhere to be seen.
The Australian Border Force believes such syndicates are highly organised and operate like crime gangs, making huge profits by exploiting their countrymen, who are mostly young and vulnerable South-East Asian men.
The syndicates charge farmers market rates to supply a regular workforce, available up to six days a week.
But the workers receive a fraction of that money, often less than $300 once their accommodation costs and living expenses have been deducted.
For those being exploited, the meagre wages are often far better than they could hope to earn at home and the money they save is regularly wired to their families.
The cramped living conditions are worth putting up with as a way to help cut living costs, with some rooms home to up to six men.
Many of those captured yesterday looked unhappy and disappointed as they were led on to buses that would take them to detention in Perth or Northam.
Those headed for Perth had agreed to leave Australia immediately and were taken to the airport detention centre until flights could be arranged.
Others who wanted to fight deportation were taken to the Yongah Hill detention centre where they will be held while their fate is determined.
For locals in Pemberton, news of yesterday’s raids did not come as much of a surprise.
The picturesque former timber town relies on overseas “backpacker” labour to help keep it moving, whether it is on the farms, or in the cafes, restaurants and hotels popular with tourists.
Several locals who spoke to The West Australian indicated the illegal worker rackets were an “open secret” and the shadowy men behind them also seemed to be well-known around town.
People were happy to reveal their names and even where they could be found.
The question of where they disappeared to yesterday is the subject of inquiries, but authorities say they are hopeful of catching them soon.
Like the men and women they exploit, they could soon be on a flight back to their own country of origin.
See exclusive vision of the raids on 7 News tonight at 6pm.
Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.
Sign up for our emails