Exploitative farm visa system needs overhaul not support

Recall the abundant evidence showing that temporary migrants have been used and abused on Australia’s farms.

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”.

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

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.

In 2018, a group of academics jointly penned an article in Fairfax claiming that exploitation of temporary migrant farm workers is rife:

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…

Finally, more “systemic exploitation” of migrant workers on Australia’s farms was exposed last year and this year.

With this background in mind, it is curious that research fellow at the Australian National University (ANU), Michael Rose, has demanded the federal government provide direct funding for temporary migrants to work on Australian farms:

More than one-third of peak seasonal jobs on horticultural farms are filled by overseas workers, according to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences.

But anyone in direct contact with the industry knows most direct harvest labour in Australia is done by foreigners…

The indefinite closure of Australia’s borders to non-resident foreign nationals jeopardises this supply of farm workers.

The question is whether the spike in domestic unemployment will see Australian workers (and other foreign workers) displaced from other sectors flocking to rural areas to take up those jobs.

Possible complications are travel restrictions, with states closing borders and city dwellers being told to stay away from Australia’s country towns, and the Australian government’s income assistance measures.

As migration researcher Henry Sherrell notes of the job seeker allowance being doubled to A$550 a week, “that’s a pretty decent week if you’re on picking piece rates”…

Allowing backpackers and seasonal workers in Australia to extend their visas is an obvious first step. On top of any measures to encourage foreign workers to stay, the longer term may require making an exception to the ban on their entering the country…

With Australian help, workers could be tested for COVID-19 before they fly. On arrival here they would be quarantined for 14 days like everyone else.

The government would need to step in and pay for suitable accommodation, catering and medical services. It would also need to ensure arrangements so workers can get home. But there are there a number of benefits to justify the cost.

How on Earth did Australia survive (not starve) for so many generations before the industry was corrupted by greedy labour hire companies abusing temporary migrants with poor wages and working conditions?

Dr Jane O’Sullivan from the University of Queensland has the right idea, stating the following in the comments section of Michael Rose’s article:

We should certainly be extending visas for any foreign worker already in Australia. But it is too early to claim that we can’t find Australians to fill horticultural jobs. Much more needs to be done to support the transport and accommodation of job-seekers. Other articles report that farmers are being inundated with cold-calls from people looking for work.

The government’s HarvestTrail web site provides a place for farmers to post ads for temporary work – it’s been there for years, but whenever I’ve looked, contained virtually no jobs because the farmers were all using labour hire companies. Now it has many jobs advertised. There are issues with people being permitted to travel to where the jobs are, but I’m sure that will be sorted out. If we end up paying more for fresh produce, then so we should. By getting it cheap, we’ve all been complicit in exploitation of foreign workers, and unemployment of rural town people who used to get that seasonal work but are now bypassed by labour hire companies.

The exploitative system needs to be cleaned up, not supported.

Unconventional Economist
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  1. TrooDohMEMBER

    Meanwhile, the UK government is being told by self-serving lobbies over there that charter flights are needed to bring in agricultural workers from eastern Europe – otherwise fruit and vegetables will be left unpicked in Britain’s fields!

    Commentator Ed West:

    “What a brilliant idea. Right in the middle of a lethal pandemic killing thousands a day, let’s fly over 90,000 fruit pickers from eastern Europe to pick fruit, while keeping millions of young people here imprisoned in their homes.

    British people, of course, are genetically incapable of picking fruit so we must bring them in from Bulgaria.

    Here’s a fun exercise. Google “crops rotting in the field” or something to that effect and go through the news story covering this terrible danger down the years – there are dozens of them.

    Then type into the search bar “wages” and see what you find. The usual result is, of course, nothing; no counter-response that British workers are capable of doing this labour but would demand higher wages than foreign workers. We simply have to hire immigrants, sorry!

    Centre-left papers run this genre of story the most, and if it seems odd that they are not on the side of higher wages, then it all makes sense if you look at the modern economy as a sort of informal caste system.”


  2. If we had an Albanese-Keneally Government, there would be a reverse labour test, and Australians would only get the job, if no suitable migrant could be found. Infinite global migrant visa justice.

  3. I live in Rosebud which prior to C19, had both some of the highest unemployment in Australia and the largest horticultural farms, which supply fresh food to south eastern Australia though out the year, ie: there is a consistent need for labour through the year, with perhaps a bit of a slow down in winter. I do bump into the workers at our corner store, as it is the closest to a lot of the farms and I know tradies who regularly go on site to repair pumps and packing lines. Almost all the workers we see appear to be here on short term visas, albeit working seriously hard and efficiently. I have never seen any advertisements for horticultural labour in the local media or any other appeals for labour or even advising of opportunities to work on these farms. It would be wonderful if we could use C19 as an opportunity to permit those already here to keep working, but block further importation of temporary migrant workers to these farms, Thus production would not be impaired, but wages would rise until the vast majority of the local unemployed seize the opportunity to take the roles needing to be filled. Prices for the produce would rise, however this would be modest as a lot of the cost is embedded in the value of the land and water, as well as transport and packaging. It would more importantly, give people in Rosebud job opportunities in Rosebud, rather than having to commute 90 minutes into Melbourne. This is not the back of Bourke. There are thousands of people needing work here, which has jumped to tens of thousands now the bars and restaurants on the Mornington Peninsula have closed

  4. It’s the working holiday visa holders that are exploiting Australia.

    Decades ago this used to be a genuine scheme of Australian & participant countries in cultural & social interchange for young people.

    Now it’s just another one of our visa categories that is totally corrupted & used to traffic in third world world mature age parasites.

    🔻Euro trash mature useless criminal
    🔻Asian petty criminals & vice Workers.
    🔻Indian lowlife
    🔻Arab & Persian jihadi
    🔻The offspring of the Brazilian San Paulo criminal class

    They are old – almost all over 30 years old.

    Over 50% of these first time working holiday visa holders never even bother with the farm or rural work as their intent is to churn onto student, spousal & skilled or regional worker visas. They never even get out of their illegal work & accomodation in Sydney or Melbourne.

    Of the remaining 50% who do the 90 day rural work – that’s usually because they failed the above / they want the visa extension.

    Very few ever spend more than 3 months on a farm or rural area.

    1. Pay the agent for the $5k ‘visa extension’.
    2. Most of these foreign low life don’t even bother to go do the 90 days farm work (fake papers & farmers paid cash for false work records is routine).
    3. The actual work ? Usually a couple of spare paddocks dup up /planted/cropped and then dug up as pretend farm work. Or part of the orchard put aside for the farmer labour ring agent working holiday racket.
    4. The Farmers and the foreign criminal run labour rings also make money in providing fetid unhealthy bunk share & ‘transport’ to the make work.

    It’s a racket.
    Cancel the whole thing.
    Cancel all their visas.
    Send them back.
    They are third world low life parasites as the foreign criminal labour rings and our Australian ‘farmers’ taking the cash bribes for this racket.

    Decriminalise it all.
    Replace it with a genuine third world migrant agricultural guestworker program where those guestworkers are bonded and bound to a sponsor and location only.
    With location & tracking controls.