Bloody hard work: Reforms and regulations desperately needed to solve farming labour crisis
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;
Story

Bloody hard work: Reforms and regulations desperately needed to solve farming labour crisis

Stories/784 , Issues/Discrimination , Issues/Policy , Issues/Human Rights , Issues/Environment
TAS
15th Mar 2021
Bloody hard work: Reforms and regulations desperately needed to solve farming labour crisis
Local job seekers spurn “slave labour"-like work conditions in fruit picking farms despite unemployment rates

Long-running issues plaguing the fruit-picking industry are coming to the fore as Covid-19 restrictions continue, highlighting a need for reform and regulation.

International border closures have kept out backpackers and visa-seekers who typically fill 70% of these positions, creating an industry-wide labour shortage. Yet, despite the spike in unemployment rates over the past twelve months, locals continue to snub fruit-picking jobs farmers are desperate to fill, even with new incentives added for those on JobSeeker and Youth Allowance.

Drawing from his own experience as a former harvester, Tasmanian Greens Senator Nick McKim says the solution is “not complicated”.

“Give people decent pay and decent working conditions,” he tells The QUO.

Agriculture Victoria’s social media efforts over the last few months appealing for job-seekers to apply for a position have been met with comparisons to slavery, and accusations of scamming exploitative award rates below minimum wage, and poor working conditions without necessities such as toilet paper.

“The pay was piece rate, at $5 a crate of grapes picked,” Teigan Killoran, a Gippsland local tells The QUO.

“I earned $80 for a 10-hour day [but] to this day I still haven’t been paid.”

Killoran took up the call after losing her job during Victoria’s Covid-19 lockdowns, lasting only two shifts under the work conditions.

“Spiders, wasps, and bees abounded, with a lot of the grapes damaged by birds,” she adds, claiming workers had not been provided basic personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves.

These claims have long been associated with harvesting jobs. The latest inquiry by the Fair Work Ombudsman in 2018 found workers were underpaid by up to $1 million. In the same year, the agricultural industry was warned by the UN Financial Sector Commission on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking that a failure to implement reforms would result in modern agricultural slave labour.

United Workers Union Farms Director, Jannette Armstrong, says the role of unions in this situation is that they allow workers to collectively “stand up, speak out, and fight back”.

She also advises workers to “keep good records of your work hours, piece rates, or wages every day. If you’re not getting payslips, keep your own diary”.

“Also try to communicate with your contractor or employer in writing whenever possible and keep a copy of all communication in your records,” she says.

Over the summer, the Victorian government added the benefit for those qualifying under the JobSeeker payments to earn an extra $300 in these jobs without affecting their existing Centrelink payments. However, as the 31 March end date for JobSeeker approaches, a long-term solution has yet to be proposed.

“These issues continue because ... those who are profiting from the status quo, particularly the big suppliers in the industry, the major supermarkets, and the government, don’t really want it to change — despite their lip service,” Armstrong says.

“Ultimately, the federal government and industry stakeholders need to invest in solutions to the long-standing, deep, and systemic issues plaguing the sector,” she adds.

Although the Victorian solution does not offer stability to local workers beyond March, Armstrong says international students are “more vulnerable to exploitation and coercion” because of their “"insecure visa status and reliance on employers for their visa”.

“Employers often act as gatekeepers inhibiting worker access to crucial supports and advocates such as unions,” she adds.

Sarah found herself in this situation, sourcing her job through a local “dodgy agent” who, she alleges, engaged in illegal activities such as embezzling money from the workers he recruited and controlling this arrangement by having workers, including Sarah, live in his house.

“He was doing stuff to the Asian girls, like saying rude things to them,” she says, “or being rude to them by doing things like cutting their hours.”

Although Sarah claims the owner had their suspicions, the close-knit feel of the nearby town community by the farm prevented the women from reporting any misbehaviour

“It was just too much for me at that time because I just really wanted to finish my visa,” she says.

“You just want to earn money and not make too much trouble.”

According to Sarah, taking action hadn’t seemed possible until now, weeks after she successfully obtained her permanent residency and under the prompting of these questions.

“I didn’t think Australians cared.”

On the other hand, Italian backpacker Giulia claims that with sufficient research, even international workers can avoid these pitfalls and enjoy this kind of work. Having heard particularly negative experiences from former berry pickers, Guilia and her partner searched for citrus jobs until they found their current farm, where they have now willingly worked for three years.

Having picked several varieties of the fruit himself decades ago, Senator McKim says the discrepancies between these experiences can not only be affected by individual farms, owners and types of fruit — as Guilia assumed — but even the variety of fruits. For example, Granny Smiths, he claims, require different processes to Pink Ladies and will therefore affect how pickers will be asked to work.

Because of these discrepancies, creating blanket regulations and requirements to ensure consistent pay and working conditions can be complicated, but McKim believes farmers should improve both aspects of work if they want to attract workers, especially now as farms are looking to fill the void left by international workers.

However, Armstrong says the responsibility for creating sustainable change extends from parliament to the suppliers.

"The major supermarkets need to step up and take responsibility for ethical practices and prices in their supply chain,” she says.

“Just as they mandate the size and shape of the fruit, or ethical pork and cage-free eggs, supermarkets can ensure fair pay and treatment of the human beings that work.”

As the Greens seek to protect the next demographic quickly being sought for labour — refugees — McKim says Australian locals can support the effort by continuing to demand proper working conditions and pay, and by campaigning.

“Any politician saying young people should just do it for social media don’t know what they’re talking about,” he says, referring to Deputy PM Michael McCormack’s comments last year.

“It’s bloody hard work.”

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