The great farm labour shortage lie

Australia’s farmers continue to complain about acute labor shortages due to the sharp reduction in Working Holiday Maker visa holders in Australia because of the COVID-19 pandemic:

The latest example comes from 7News, which reports that growers are facing a “dire shortage of pickers”:

The report conveniently ignores the  abundant evidence of temporary migrants being ruthlessly exploited on Australia’s farms. It also ignores that many farms refuse to employ Australians precisely because they are less exploitable than temporary visa holders.

The New Daily has done a terrific job exposing the rort. Earlier this month it reported that a recruitment company set up at the start of the pandemic to find Australians work on farms has found it ‘impossible’ to get locals jobs because they are less exploitable than migrant workers:

AgriAus had more than 1500 applicants for farm work but was unable to secure even one of them a job due to farmers’ preference for foreign workers, the firm’s co-founder told The New Daily.

“We got 1500 applications from people desperate for farm work in three days,” he said.

“We started making contact with farmers to gauge if they wanted people to go out there or not. We spoke to the Department of Agriculture to see if they could push it, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference because the farmers don’t want to change their habits.”

He said they had tried farms across Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, but as soon as employers heard the job seekers were Australian citizens all interest died.

What we’ve been finding is the moment you say you want to get an Aussie a job, the farmer doesn’t want to listen,” he said.
“We did a bit of digging around why, and farmers said ‘one, they’re lazy’, and ‘two, we have to pay them’.

“I’ve applied and been out to farms myself. The moment you say you’re a citizen you don’t get a response whatsoever.”

The New Daily followed up last week reporting more exploitation:

Noah Wun, 33, is a fit, experienced picker – he’s been up and down Australia’s harvest trail chasing the season since he was 18.

In September he saw a news headline touting a ‘$3800 a week job no one wants’ picking fruit and decided to follow it up…

“They got us to sign an agreement stating the horticulture award does not guarantee a minimum wage, and we understand we might not make a minimum wage on the piece rate,” Mr Wun told The New Daily.

“There was a clause that said I’m not signing under duress.”

The minimum casual wage in Australia is $753.80 per 38-hour week.

Mr Wun was paid nearly 25 per cent less than that – just $577 – and that was after he threatened to go to take his case to the Fair Work Ombudsman because they had underpaid him…

“When they extended the working holiday visas to include more countries, it got harder,” he said.

The farmers started contracting the backpacker hostels to provide the labour, the situation became that you could only get work if you’re staying at the backpacker hostel”…

Often the hostels charge exorbitant prices for basic accommodation…

Currently, labour-hire companies across the country are advertising for positions, some of them specifically stating they will only employ backpackers…

Mr Wun said the government’s push to plug the backpacker hole with Australians would not work, because the farmers simply wouldn’t employ them.

“It’s definitely playing out on both sides. A lot of Aussies don’t want the work because they know they won’t make a wage and the farmers are then saying ‘they are too lazy’,” he said.

And this week, The New Daily reported on the “modern slavery” endemic on Australia’s farms:

After living in the unregulated underbelly of Australia’s farming industry for years and being paid as little as $12 an hour while being slugged exorbitant accommodation fees, exploited foreign farm workers are speaking out…

It’s the dark side of the nation’s venerated farming sector that you won’t hear about from politicians urging job seekers to “do it for the ‘gram” and fill fruit picking roles on farms, despite reports showing that many farmers simply refuse to hire locals.

The federal government, and politically powerful peak farmers body the National Farmers Federation, were unaware of the exploitative practice of tying contracts into costly accommodation, despite examples put to them by TND…

New information from the workers is further evidence of the exploitation…

When asked about the industry’s attitudes towards Australians, he said farmers and contractors were so reluctant to hire locals at one point they pretended his Queensland mate was Brazilian so he could land the job…

Mobis said: “I can’t agree with the policy of foreign workers that the government provides. It’s modern slavery.

“It opens up a lot of potential for farmers and contractors to exploit workers”…

Iain Campbell has researched the harvest labour market and said industry groups cry out for cheap foreign labour every year.

“Every year without fail, growers and associations and politicians linked with them have said ‘we’re facing a chronic shortage of labour and we need access to temporary workers’,” the University of Melbourne academic said.

If the farmers truly had a labour shortage that could be filled by some of the 1.4 million Australians out of work, they would be “bragging about their good working conditions, good living conditions, legal wages,” he said.

“Instead it’s the same old, same old: ‘We need the government to bring in more foreign workers’,” Dr Campbell said.

Over the past 15 years Australia’s horticulture industry has become so reliant on cheap labour that it has developed ‘‘an appetite for it”, he said.

As MB keeps saying, allowing Australia’s farmers to pluck cheap foreign workers en masse is bad for both wages and long-run productivity.

Australia’s mining industry is world class and attracts workers to far out places by paying excellent wages.

Cut off the migrant slave labour pipeline and Australian farms will be forced to raise wages. In turn, this will drive farms to automate and lift productivity, boosting both profits and wages.

However, if the government allows farms to continue relying heavily on cheap foreign labour, then capital will shallow, productivity will stagnate, and both wages and profits will decline.

There’s a reason why farms in advanced nations are more likely to involve a handful of workers operating heavy machinery, whereas in low-wage developing countries farms are manned by many workers doing manual labour.

The higher cost of labour in advanced countries forces farms to invest in labour saving machinery, which lifts productivity.

If farm margins are so weak then they should be forced to consolidate, driving economies of scale, improved productivity, and higher profit margins.

The key ingredient for Australian agriculture to flourish is productivity-enhancing automation, not migrant slave labour.

Australians are not inherently lazy. But they do know when they are being exploited and paid slave wages.

The whole industry needs a clean-out.

Unconventional Economist
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  1. adelaide_economist

    Plenty of laughs in that. The Federal Government and the NFF are “unaware” of the exploitative practices… hilarious. I like the one who had a friend pretend they were Brazilian (who says Australians can’t be innovative?) to get the job but that farmer must have been particularly dumb because usually they ask for documentation so they can identify your status and hire (or not) accordingly. Must say though I feel sorry for Mr Wun if he fell for the ‘stupidly high wage available but no one wants the job’ stories run by mainstream media in this country on the regular. Commonsense should tell anyone that there’s enough desperate people around at any time, let alone right now, who would take on any job that paid half of the figures bandied about in those stories if it was legitimate.

    • I watched that news story and lets just say I said quite a few uncomplimentary words in the tv’s direction.

      • However that one tiny ‘news’ article on mainstream TV will create the absolute fact in every LNP voters mind that poorer Aussies are lazy and should be punished. Wait till someone trots this out at a BBQ this summer. I’m currently in the UK and these exact same ‘news’ stories have been on TV here. The reality of course is that the farmer pays an Eastern European gang master who then ostensibly pays the worker the min wage, then the farmer charges £100 week to share a filthy caravan with 3 other workers(claw back). Farmers wont recruit locally, quoting all sorts of clap trap but in reality avoiding the truth of the matter.

        • Steve99 as you said this model is applied world wide for temporary visa workers across many industries from Hospitality to Farming and it is nothing short of modern day slavery.
          The cruelty , inhumane treatment and total lack of empathy that is shown is soul destroying to me but what can you expect in this dog eat dog I’m ok jack world we live in.
          Depressing .

    • This is what real productivity is. Meantime back in gods own country, productivity means nailing a cross to someone’s back, berating them for being lazy, hitting them with a stick and underpaying them. Even better is that we get the national government and media joining in the witch hunt against the lowest paid workers.

  2. Per the New Daily article – $69 a day for full board – is that a fair rate?

    Sounds maybe a little high for the regions but it doesn’t feel outrageous.

    • It’s terrible compared to earnings.

      Further, workers are frequently unable to find their own far more affordable accommodation, else they are denied the job – they are effectively indentured. It’s first world slavery but given other names.

    • No, that’s obscene considering it would be second rate shared accommodation, ie shared rooms. Can be fed for $10 a day easily. $69 a day ($483pw) would be far more than half the days wages gone (at least if you take into account the underpaying and intermittent nature of the work over any particular week or month meaning you will never get the legal full time minimum wage) . This is nothing but exploitation and a form of legal claw back of wages.

  3. Maybe we should called the National Farmers Federation the ‘National Famers Confederacy’, to reflect their member businesses that are dependent on what is effectively exploitative first-world slave labour.

    And/or, at least stop lying: just say you want slave labour say we either accept it or hang you out to dry as Neo-Confederates.