Australia’s visa system exploited by slave-driving farmers

Late last year, a group of academics – Joanna Howe, Alex Reilly, Stephen Clibborn, Diane van den Broek & Chris F Wright – jointly penned an article in Fairfax claiming that the exploitation of temporary migrant horticultural workers is rampant:

Australia already has more backpackers, and relies more strongly on them for horticultural work, than any country…

Unlike agricultural visas in New Zealand, Canada and the United States, and unlike Australia’s own Pacific seasonal worker program, there is no pre-approval of employers. Nor is there systematic ongoing regulation to ensure compliance with workplace laws…

Story after story after story have exposed exploitation on farms…

Other major studies have also found migrant workers are ripe for exploitation.

In 2016, the Fair Work Ombudsman completed an inquiry into Australia’s backpacker visa scheme, which found that “many backpackers are being subjected to underpayment or non-payment, unlawful deductions, sexual harassment, unsafe working conditions and other forms of exploitation”.

A scathing Senate report, entitled A National Disgrace: The Exploitation of Temporary Work Visa Holders, also documented systemic abuse of Australia’s Working Holiday Maker visa program, which was “consistently reported to suffer widespread exploitation in the Australian workforce”.

Similarly, the 2017 National Temporary Migrant Work Survey found that one in every seven temporary migrant fruit and vegetable pickers were paid $5 an hour or less, and a third $10 an hour or less.

Last week, Crikey joined the chorus, publishing a detailed expose on the “slave-like conditions” migrant workers are being subjected to on Australia’s farms, where wage costs have been driven down by the large supermarkets:

It’s out in the heat and the dust of Australia’s farms that this country’s broken visa system can best be viewed. That’s where the cheap, exploitable, often illegal labour is picking and packing the fruit and vegetables…

The result? Far too many arrangements that see labourers held in slave-like conditions, paid a paltry wage and at risk of serious injury or death. An inquiry by the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) last year reported that there had been 82 deaths in the crop, fruit, vegetable and flower growing industries in the decade to 2016. Instances of exploitation have been regularly exposed by the media and followed up by the authorities, yet it persists and even thrives.

Today, there’s a new report released — this time from the National Union of Workers (NUW) — that details the continuing exploitation of temporary labour. The union has documented the experiences of 650 temporary migrants picking and packing fruit across Sunraysia and the Goulburn Valley in the high season of April and May. Most are from south-east Asia and the Pacific, with the single biggest group from Malaysia.

The survey finds:

  • An average hourly wage of $14.80 before tax.
  • Two-thirds earn below the casual, minimum rate of $23.66 an hour, with some wages as low as $4.60 an hour.
  • 68% work for cash paid by a labour contractor or sub-contractor.
  • A group of 10 workers in a rural area could expect to pay $150 per person per week for a share house, leaving them each with as little as $100-200 in take-home pay per week.
  • Only a few get pay slips, PAYG tax or superannuation.
  • Only 33% report holding a valid work visa.

The survey paints a dire picture of exploitation and fear where labour syndicates control every part of a worker’s life from dawn to dusk, and extract high fees for accommodation and transport…

Migration lawyer and NUW adviser Sanmati Verma is even more blunt. “I think the supermarket duopoly in Australia, and the downward price pressure that creates, is the reason for this entire mess. It is the reason why farmers get squeezed on price in such an intense way, that there’s essentially a cartelisation of the way that price works, that it’s agreed between the two major providers, and that it’s fixed, and that it’s driven downwards”…

The cash economy that has traditionally ruled in the fruit and vegetable sector, combined with a chaotic visa system, has produced a dangerous subculture that’s taking place beyond the gaze of consumers in supermarket aisles.

…without these workers, “I think they know the country could be in some kind of economic crisis, when you’ll see not just the agriculture industry fall over but other sectors too.”

Aside from the moral imperative, improving fruit pickers’ wages and conditions makes good economic sense. Not only would it reduce rampant exploitation, but it would encourage farms to invest in labour-saving technology, thus improving productivity.

A key reason why developed economies are more efficient and have higher wages than their developing country counterparts is because they have invested heavily in labour-saving technologies and capital equipment.

For example, rather than having one hundred people with picks and shovels building a road, as occurs in developing countries (where labour is cheap), developed nations instead use a dozen people operating heavy machinery. The same applies to developed versus developing country agricultural production.

Therefore, by stopping rampant exploitation and allowing fruit pickers’ wages to rise, farmers will be forced to invest in becoming more efficient. The same principle applies to other areas of the Australian economy where migrant exploitation is rife.

Unconventional Economist
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  1. In the regional & rural areas it is very distinct groups of visa rackets in the migrant guestworkers.

    1. Working holiday / only a small fraction ever spend time in a regional & rural area. They either pay an agent or farmer up to $3-5,000 to falsify the 90 day regional and rural work documentation or spend the 90 days in a working holiday hostel for a bribe paid to the agent & the farmers in ‘make work’ to get the visa extension.
    They may do some work – and even hard work / but it’s pseudo pretend work for the visa cash bribe.
    Some stats bear this out. Only 9% of the backpackers over a 1 year period are ever deployed in regionally / rural work (36% do the pretence for the extension / 90 days)*
    A key point here is that if they are genuinely in a regional or rural area they will work for virtually nothing to ‘register’ that work.
    Of course it decimates local youth or Australian employment as the constant flow of transients willing to do anything for a Faked payslip & ‘cash back’ bribe to the publican or local business churn thru.

    *This statistic means 91% of the 150-180,000 ‘working holiday’ visa holders onshore in Australia actually are in the cities over a 1 year period.
    Or only some 15,000 are actually deployed in regional or rural work over a year.
    As anyone familiar with this racket will tell you.
    No. -> Willing participants.
    The bribes by the working holiday applicants for the agents & farmers in make work or Fake doc are even organised before they arrive by their various ethnic criminal traffickers.

    2. Migrant guestworkers on seasonal working visas.

    These are more genuine – Pacific Islanders & so on.
    Some enforcement and a real contribution and not seen as exploited.

    3. Migrant guestworkers on tourist and visitor visas working illegally.
    You have to see it to believe it.
    Not exploited but willing participants.
    Tens of thousands of them in regional and rural areas as part of the hundreds of thousands working illegally in Australia in visa breach.

    We have 8.8 million tourist visitors a year.
    Over 5% are estimated to be here only to work illegally.
    Thats the ABF / DHA parliamentary submission.

    That is at least 440,000 in visa breach.

    These are Chinese, Indians, Nepalese, Bangladeshi, Malays (electronic visa.), Indonesians, middle eastern as well as UK & euro trash, South America etc.
    In the regional & rural areas it will be the Asian & Indian city slum people working illegally in the regional towns doing ‘townie jobs’ – cleaner, cook, shop work, driver, vice etc.
    On the farms it will be the third world peasants or rurals flown in from China or India or south east Asia doing the rural work.
    Are they exploited? Yes, but willingly so.
    They all knew before entry what the deal was.
    They all took the agent criminal syndicate loan debt.
    They paid the agent fees & bribes, the fake doc & most don’t even get a heath check as a tourist, or pay for a fake one if multiple / repeat stay.
    They lied all the way thru immigration.
    They all took the coaching and followed instructions in how to dress, what to not pack, what to say and so on.

    Then when they get caught or their long stay or the repeat stay visa runs out…

    -> Off to the appeals tribunal to claim they were ‘victims and exploited’..

    Granted a 5 year stay on a protection visa (from the agent or syndicate they took the loan from & did not repay..) and then full work rights as they churn thru Cat A to E.
    Not exploited at all. Willing participants in visa breach.
    And these are just a tiny fraction of the whole massive third world migrant guestworker trafficking rackets deliberately allowed to flourish.
    2.5 million third world unskilled migrant guestworkers onshore. We have more migrant guestworkers than Gaddafi at his peak. And his ones paid tax.

    The Australian goverment knows.
    It’s not just the parliamentary submissions but a huge body of evidence exposing this.

    Yet still they flood in / destroying Australians jobs, wages, education, housing, standards of living.

    This is why we need a Royal Commission into the whole farce of migrant guestworker trafficking and corrupted border control & visa system – and have it placed under an Australian people’s representative authority.

  2. reusachtigeMEMBER

    Sick anti-social un-Australians say exploited. Hard working good Aussies having a go say utilized.

  3. Letting foreigners pick fruit for $10/week is ok.

    The issue is, foreigners are allowed to come here in unlimited numbers and take any job!

    Theresa May has a good solution – deport the fruit pickers every 6 months and let them come in again after they have stayed out of Britain for 6 months. That way, they do not take the better jobs that require a permanent presence. And they will also know their station in life.

    Order other jobs to pay more – raise the minimum salary of petrol station staff to $30/hour.

    • cost or regular deporting would offset any benefits gained from using them as cheap labour
      instead we can just give deportation money from the budget to farmers to pay locals more

  4. Tassie TomMEMBER

    Great article. Great explanation of “productivity” and the “labour market” – two thinks that Australia is devoid of right now.

    Governments, and conservative governments in particular try to give as much of the public’s wealth as possible to their rich farmer mates. Rich farmers (almost all of Australia’s farmland is owned by multi-millionaires, make no mistake) are some of the best mates of the conservative government out there.

    What is the one gift that you can give that’s worth more than money? The answer: sex. The backpacker worker system is a specific tool for governments to give their rich farmer mates the gift of sex, in the form of young, exotic, exploitable women tethered to you by the compulsory 90-day work thing to get signed off.

    It should be more illegal for a rich farmer to f**k their backpacker employee than it already is for a doctor to f**k their patient, such is the massive power imbalance. Even in the case of alleged consensual love-sex it should be “Go straight to gaol, do not pass GO, do not collect $200”.

  5. I don’t even know why we even bother with agriculture …
    our agriculture is so unproductive, wasteful, polluting, … producing poor quality and small amounts
    if Europeans were given our land, resources, subsidies … they would be feeding 1 billion people

    plus our agriculture is a tiny part of our bubble economy only around $60b per year
    that’s how much real estate agents make in a year or Gladys wastes on private roads in a year

    • yeah fk agriculture …wind it up

      if Europeans were given our land, resources, subsidies … they would be feeding 1 billion people

      kewl story bro…made my day😂😂😂

    • SupernovaMEMBER

      If the European farmers were given Aussie rural land they would demand a EU minimum price guarantee before they got onto their tractors. Aussie farmers don’t have the security of entitled PUBLIC SECTOR UNION grossly protected wages, instead, Aussie farmers take the business risk; hence they have become the most efficient farmers on the globe.
      I find it utterly inappropriate for protected, entitled university employees (who are able to produce fraudulent research) to be producing research that clearly destroys tax paying rural enterprises trying to keep their costs down so millions of Australians can afford to purchase healthy food, which they would not otherwise, if prices rise.
      I would ask these entitled, unaccountable professors of research, just WHO IS PAYING FOR YOUR RESEARCH because its finding have very serious consequences for ordinary battling Australians.

      • Btw I don’t work in academia and also how about we make sure rich (many of who own large farms) pay any tax and use that to fund subsidies to ordinary farmers and research to help them get better results

    • Problem with our subsidies is distribution. Few big get all and small farmers get nothing. Our subsidies are large when compared to europe but most of farmers get little and few get everything.
      Also what we grow and how is totally wrong, rice in desert, our yields are poor while costs are high. We cannot compete with our 1t/ha wheat yields with europens who have 6-7t/ha while we spend more fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides…
      We should not grow rice, wheat, … on land that’s not good for that.
      also our farmers are debt slaves destroyed by greedy banks

  6. A key reason why developed economies are more efficient and have higher wages than their developing country counterparts is because they have invested heavily in labour-saving technologies and capital equipment.

    Has anyone in modern day Australia ever developed a labour saving device?
    Does Australia have the Engineering skills to develop commercially viable global products?
    Do we have the Manufacturing (or even system prototyping) skills to develop demonstration devices?
    Do we have the sort of patient capital that can / will invest in risky ventures with decade payback timeframes?
    Do we have the tax structure that encourages such investment?
    What’s the alternative investment loss (as in how much more could I have made by simply buying a block of vacant Sydney RE)? what’s the risk/reward ratios for the two investment approaches?
    Are other countries likely to develop these devices for us? (As in do they suffer with the same farm labour cost problems?)

    So as much as I agree with the sentiment expressed I can’t help but feel that any attempt to implement this new agrarian path-way will fall short at the implementation stage. what’s the old saying about the three most important things in a development projects (execution, execution, execution)? ….That’s not really playing to Australia’s strong suit, is it?

    • Necessity is the mother of invention.

      Cheaper labour means no necessity (for labour-saving devices).

      Scummo and friends really don’t want to trouble local Aussies by burdening them with having to invent something useful — they’re good like that.

      • Necessity is the mother of invention.
        True, very true BUT it’s the skills side of the equation that has me questioning this path forward.
        There are so many things that any interested government could do to turn Australia into a product development paradise.
        Just imagine the interest if anyone involved in new product development was given the same tax advantage as those that speculate on existing houses.
        Why not make someone tax exempt for the rest of their life IF they develop a new globally useful product that has say $100M total revenue.
        Imagine an Australian population with the STEM skills to compete with the best in the world.
        Imagine the products that we would be the first to develop because of our high labour costs
        Imagine the capital flow resulting from just human effort that would happen if Australia had developed the iPhone or even a good Android copy.
        Australia could be so different but I suspect we’re all too scared to create our own pathways, scared s4itless by our own shadows, so we stick to that which we understand (house and holes)…it’s so sad really!

  7. Maybe our Senators could have a debate about this important immigration issue in parliament … oh wait.

  8. There has been a load of comment about ‘business models’ being based on exploitation – vis restaurants and franchisees and food delivery and what have you.

    Well, Australia has a lot of farmers who are every bit as based on exploiting the poor bastards who get dragooned into their hands as labourers. Head along in particular to a load of towns in the Murray Valley and the Riverina, the fruit growing locales of Northern NSW and QLD or Even Tassie.

    There should be something in every contract (either individual employment contracts, for those farmers who still do them, or labour hire contracts (using firms) which requires payment of the Award minima. And there should be punishment (including jail time) for those found to be in breach of those conditions.

  9. Well let’s say you cut out the farm exploitation and pay an Australian living wage what will happen. Farming will become unprofitable as no Aussie with half a brain wants to go live in a dying little town in the middle of nowhere. So imports will ramp up from the same countries that the so called exploited workers are coming from killing the local industry for good. Win win..

    • Tassie TomMEMBER

      I think that’s what they call the “labour market”, the fundamental theory behind Workchoices. Potential employees bid each other down when competing for the same job, whereas potential employers bid each other up while competing for the same worker.

      If the farmers can’t find workers then maybe they could start by improving their pay and conditions, ie, competing in the labour market. Or they might not get their worker at all. In which case they have another option – invest in labour-saving devices thereby improving Australia’s “productivity”.

    • Look at dem lubly yorgas

      “no Aussie with half a brain wants to go live in a dying little town in the middle of nowhere. ”

      Oh really? Clearly you’ve never worked in the mining industry or oil & gas. Pay ppl enough and there will be demand for those jobs.

      Add yourself to the “half a brain” list

    • Which is why free trade is stupid. If Aus has large agricultural tarrifs then there is protection for farmers from products produced in countries where workers are exploited.

    • Tariffs must be imposed on imported foreign products then. Support your community. It’s going to be real awesome when the people around you have no jobs. Are you that desperate for cheap strawberries

  10. Ye gods, Australian farmers have a proud history of being at the forefront of agricultural labour saving devices. Problem is mechanical device dont work for picking soft fruit unless you want juice. No country has developed a solution for that. The real problem is the corupt supermarkets and labour hire firms. Create a nationalised employment pay system and labour hire system and kill the problem at its root.