Maybe you’ve seen that queue of work-soiled labourers waiting to use the ATM at Koo Wee Rup. Who organises them? How much do they earn? Are they refugees? How do they get here? I often brush past them, concentrating on my shopping list.
Many of those who work on Australia’s vegetable and fruit farms, and in chicken farms, are migrant workers from Asia and Europe on 417 working holiday visas. This month, the nation’s conscience, ABC’s Four Corners, revealed that many of them are underpaid, overworked and routinely abused, harassed and assaulted at work, often by organised syndicates.
The program also revealed that much of the produce was destined for the major supermarkets. Thus, all of us who shop at Woolworths, Coles, Aldi and IGA are implicated in the continued exploitation of vulnerable foreign workers.
Now that our eyes have been opened, governments, producers and supermarkets must act to prevent the creation of a permanent underclass of workers trapped in slave-like conditions. Such mistreatment of foreign labourers shames our nation and forces local workers to reduce their expectations of fair play by their bosses.
Victorian Farmers Federation president Peter Tuohey recently said that while the vast majority of farmers did the right thing, everyone along the supply chain needed to meet their legal obligations to Australian workers.
“There’s no excuse, when it comes to paying workers what they deserve. But the push by major supermarkets to drive down prices hasn’t helped. I think everyone needs to realise that when they see massive supermarket discounts on food, someone has to pay for it. And I can tell you most of the time it’s the farmer, not the supermarkets.”
And there’s the rub. There are many fixed, unavoidable costs in the production of food. Reducing the cost of labour is the easiest way to respond to downward pressure on shelf prices.
However, this attitude can be overcome by educating consumers to the conditions they are facilitating. Recognition of the cruelty of battery chicken farming has led to people willingly paying a bit extra for ethically produced eggs and poultry.
Every year Australians consume well over 500 million chickens. When whole birds are on special in Wonthaggi for $6 a kilo, there is obviously not a lot of return to anyone in the supply chain. Each extra 10 cents added to the retail price provides an extra $900,000 PER WEEK that could be allocated to ensure proper remuneration and conditions across the industry.
Consumers should use their wallets as an agent of change. If this initiative isn't transferable across agricultural sectors it should be the start of a conversation.Perhaps product branding of ethical farmers could be introduced. A guarantee of fair conditions at the source would be a marketable point of difference on our crowded supermarket shelves.
The State Government has promised an inquiry into labour hire, sham contracting and the unethical treatment of employees. Since the Four Corners program, Premier Daniel Andrews has stated that it’s clear Victoria needs a better system in place when it comes to regulating labour hire practices. He has yet to announce when the inquiry will start.
To stop the abuse of foreign workers, the Federal Government will audit their payslips when they apply for their second visa. The Government then only has to wait for defrauded workers to turn up at an office and willingly hand over the evidence. Hopefully, the visa applicant can also provide the current contact details of their abuser.
However, these payslips won't record money deducted on the pretext of fees for meals and rent. A payslip isn't evidence of physical, mental and sexual abuse. Many of these workers won’t get a payslip. If they do, there is no guarantee of accuracy.
Seasonal Workers Australia (described on its website as “horticulture’s most innovative seasonal labour solution!”) provides labourers under the government-auspiced Seasonal Worker Program, which bolsters the economies of Pacific nations by providing recurring short-term work in Australia. Among many other employer benefits listed are “results based payment options” that may eliminate penalty payments.
A recent survey of horticulturalists revealed that the program, which has been championed by Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, was failing to meet its objectives. A World Bank report stated it was being undermined by the failure to curb the use of illegal labour.
Citrus grower Sue Jenkins supports the program. "We certainly do have contractors offering cheap workers to us," she said. Although more costly, annually returning Pacific Islanders were in fact "much more productive" in the long run, she said.
"The first year is hard, you've got to teach people everything, but the second year they get off the bus ... they go to work the next day. We have a 75-80 per cent return rate ... it's just phenomenally better from the point of view of an employer."
As revealed on Four Corners, the cost of something isn’t necessarily the retail price.
May 16, 2015
My husband and I have been coming to Queensland to find seasonal work for the past two years. The first year there was plenty of work and we met many other Australians as well as backpackers from around the world, all hard working people. But the second year there was a dramatic change as cheap labour took over the job market. We could not compete for jobs when Asian workers were accepting payment of just $50 per day for 12 hours a day working in jobs that used to go to Australians.
These imported workers do not have the living costs we do, are crammed into substandard housing and accept conditions we would not. If I accepted the pay rate offered would I be able to afford to pay my car registration and running costs, the accommodation and food costs, health insurance and other things necessary for my lifestyle? I think not. We are rapidly losing jobs up here and there is now a growing subculture of poverty among Australian itinerant workers. Unfortunately I can only see the situation getting worse as more imported workers flood into the country and more jobs are lost to us and we are left living in the fields of broken dreams.