Time to end migrant farm slavery

Just days after a Liberal-chaired parliamentary committee called for a dedicated agriculture visa, which would give farmers easier access to cheap labour, The New Daily has published another stinging report on the ‘legalised exploitation’ of migrant workers on Australian farms:

A German woman has told how she couldn’t afford to eat while being paid less than the price of a cup of coffee thanks to a minimum-wage loophole on Australian farms.

In one case of what’s being labelled “legal exploitation”, Carmen Hardt was paid just $19 for two days work picking zucchinis on a Bundaberg property last year.

As her farm experience rolled on Ms Hardt got quicker but she barely made a liveable wage.

On top of this, one of the hostels she was forced to stay at by her employer charged $250 a week.

“The hostels give you just enough work to pay your rent sometimes not even that,” she told The New Daily…

Between February and July this year, Ms Hardt did a stint in the Victorian town of Shepparton for a big apple farm.

They told her in the interview she would be paid piece rate and forced to stay in their accommodation with nine other girls, at a cost of $175 a week.

I made $30-ish in 11 hours because the fruit wasn’t good enough or ripe enough during that time’’.

Because of the pandemic, and the need to complete rural work to qualify for her visa, Ms Hardt was stuck on the farm. She made $585 in her best week there.

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

She said the experience made her regret coming to this country.

This follows The New Daily’s other investigative reports (here, here , here and here), which show that thousands of Australians have been rejected for farm work because they must be paid legal wages and are less easy to exploit.

The Australian Workers Union has demanded that farm workers earn the minimum wage:

AWU national secretary Daniel Walton told the ABC that growing evidence of systemic underpayments through the use of shady labour-hire firms showed minimum conditions for workers needed to be nailed down in law.

“This industry has become the epicentre for exploitation around the country. People know in every corner of Australia that the fruit and vegetable industry by and large has some of the worst exploitation that’s going on,” Mr Walton said.

“We want this industry to offer people decent jobs. But until we start cleaning up and getting proper enforcement in this industry, unfortunately stories of people getting $3 an hour will continue.”

As MB keeps saying, allowing Australia’s farmers to pluck cheap migrant 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.

One wonders how Australia survived (not starved) for so many generations before the industry was corrupted by greedy labour hire companies abusing temporary migrants with poor wages and working conditions?

The whole industry needs a clean-out, not support from the Coalition government.

Unconventional Economist
Latest posts by Unconventional Economist (see all)


  1. Wiki:

    “Sally McManus …served as the Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions since 2017. She is the first woman to hold the position of Secretary in the ACTU’s 90-year history.”

    Ipso facto, it can never be said that Sally McManus has been an abject failure in the union and labour movement as this would mean that the league of extraordinary feminist journalists at the ABC would have to put blind ideology aside and ask how slavery and exploitation has been condoned by the ACTU? We’d need to be treated to Sally being grilled over the reality of stagnant wages, declining union membership and the roll of mass immigration and mass human exploitation as part of the ACTU’s woke stratagem.

    This issue has been the bread and butter of the ACTU since 1927:

    “The introduction of compulsory arbitration in the early 20th century assisted in recovering union numbers. The arbitration system established minimum wages and conditions and encouraged employers to consult with unions. This led to the establishment of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) in 1927.”


    Cheap foreign labour represented one of the key issues concerning the labour movement much earlier. Sally can’t bring herself to admit that issues of cheap foreign labour and indentured servitude was a main driver of the early ALP, because she has been too ready to dismiss such motivations as ‘racist’.

    If the ACTU is not calling for industrial action over the return of state sponsored slavery, then the Labour movement is dead in Australia. It is a now a tool of the plantation owners and the stuff of a Joseph Conrad novel. It matters not that Kurtz is a woman, but that those who consider themselves to be civilised are instead the real savages.

    • pfh007.comMEMBER

      “..If the ACTU is not calling for industrial action over the return of state sponsored slavery, then the Labour movement is dead in Australia. ..”


      At Federation even Victorian liberals like Alfred Deakin understood the importance of stopping and preventing the emergence of plantations reliant on “indentured” (aka slave) imported labour.

      Worth keeping in mind that the US civil war had taken place only 35 years beforehand.

      There was a much clearer understanding of the ease with which imported labour could be exploited and subjected to conditions close to slavery.

      Also worth keeping in mind that cane cutting was a highly paid occupation after Federation with cane cutters getting paid approximately 3 times the average wage for doing hard dirty work in remote locations.

      That is why cutters like Barney and Roo were able to party in Melbourne for 17 summers.

      Most if not all “Guest worker” visas (student, holiday makers, explorer sponsored, skilled, special category agricultural etc) should be abolished or subjected to much more careful regulation so that they do not continue to be a source of unskilled exploited labour.

      • “cane cutting was a highly paid occupation”

        The difference being that cane growers and most farmers were also rolling in it……

        120 years of factory farming has reduced the soil to dust and profitability to near zero

    • Please correct me if I’m wrong but wasn’t the White Australia Policy actually the first stand against cheap foreign labour ? It’s since been so smeared with the woke-brush that it’s original intent seems to have been summarily dismissed.

      Now look where we are….

      • Fishing72,

        Yes – it was for the most part about protecting the living standards of workers and preventing the emergence of slavery or something close to it.

        The plantation owners and the neoliberals of the day (the free traders) were always opposed to the policy for the same reasons they support guest worker programs today. To undermine the bargaining power of labour.

        Plus it was never strictly about race for race sake (rather the misguided belief that certain races were more prone to exploitation) and its implementation involved a dictation test.

        “…Māori generally benefited from the same immigration and voting rights as European New Zealanders in Australia, making them a notable exception to the White Australia policy. In 1902, with the Commonwealth Franchise Act, Māori residents in Australia were granted the right to vote, a right denied to Indigenous Australians. During that same period, their right to settle in Australia was facilitated by their shared status as British subjects.[26] The Australian government granted equal rights to Māori only reluctantly. In 1905, the New Zealand government made a formal complaint about the exclusion of two Māori shearers, after which the Australian government changed its customs regulations to allow Māori to freely enter the country. Other Pacific Islanders were still subject to the White Australia policy.[27]..”


        Naturally any policy now seeking to protect the interests of Australian workers should not have any discriminatory aspects based on race as the issue is exploitation of vulnerable people and anyone can be subject to that.

        • In its rush to be virtuous many in the ALP and ACTU have decided that outright condemnation of racism (a universal principle accepted by most) needs to go hand in hand with a simple narrative that re-writes history i.e. that the WAP was predicated upon racial grounds only. What they have avoided is the far more complex history that has a context influenced by the African slave trade and American Civil War as you have pointed out. Given that the Australian labour movement was central to the WAP it seems clear that they have decided to gloss over history in order to go woke. What they have never revealed is the nature of their retrospective vision. Prior to the WAP (and even after) Australia was beginning to go down the path of South Africa with Blackbirding (e.g. kidnapping of Papuans for labour),


          exploitation of Kanaks for indentured servitude,


          and even after the WAP the use of Japanese divers for the pearling industry that saw massive mortality as there were no unions operating to protect remote ethnic minorities engaged in dangerous work that was incentivised by locals.


          So how exactly do the woke retrospectives expect that their non-discriminatory open boarders and labour deregulation mantras would have worked out in Australia?

          It is very probable that Australia would have ended up part SA apartheid and part French Polynesia with labour devalued and workers forced into a poor bargaining positions in general. And what of the poor sods forced into dangerous and degrading work conditions with little opportunity for social mobility and no political power? How is it that this would have worked out any differently to every other place it has been tried?

          With an unwillingness to admit to and own the actual history of the Labour movement in Australia with reference to protecting working conditions and seeing off a culture of slavery, the ALP and ACTU has not been left with much to work with. If opposing mass immigration and exploitation = racism, then clearly Orwell’s vision is now complete:

          “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell – 1984

          Because we are now seeing the return of slavery in another form. And just how does this play out for an African American backpacker visiting contemporary Australia as a tourist? Sorry mate, you need to work on a plantation for 3 months and be exploited before we will allow your sort to stay. It makes me cringe. It’s just so wrong on so many levels.

          I can’t wait for African nations to bring in their visa forcing citizens of western nations to complete 3 months of labour as part of their visa requirements – no exceptions. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

    • Temporary visa conditions for working holidaymakers, mandating that a visa holder should complete 3 (?) months of farmwork in order to obtain a visa renewal, in effect forces reluctant workers on to farms where they can be exploited.

      • Because reluctant and untrained workers unfamiliar with remote areas distant from medical services, policing and support structures would be my first choice as an ’empowered’ labour force working close to farm machinery. We are told that an ‘epidemic’ of abuse against women is happening in Australia – but not in rural areas apparently. The PM will personally guarantee the safety of all 18 year olds to their families.

    • Dominoes, 7 Eleven, Retail, Food delivery service, High end Restaurants wage fraud.

      Leith and MB team think its a farming problem. Sorry lads, its an Australian problem and farming is just one of the many “industries” pushing a trade in underpaid slave labor.

  2. happy valleyMEMBER

    “The whole industry needs a clean-out, not support from the Coalition government.”

    And I thought Strayan farmers were all salt of the earth types?

    You can also see why the likes of LPer Andrew Bragg want TND shut down?

  3. The comparison between mining and farming may be apt (both mine the earth) and it seems both are currently failing to attract workers. In the case of mining it seems ever fewer students are studying engineering, leading to a growing global shortage. Just another problem it seems money alone can’t fix (also a headache for REs, heavily reliant on mining of rare earth minerals, cobalt, lithium, oil to manufacture, install and decommission).

    As many resources are rapidly approaching peaks, the multiple problems arising from depletion – whether it’s a predictable climate, oil, rare earth minerals, or food – can’t simply be solved, as CBs also clearly believe – in throwing more money and AI at the problem in the hope it’ll all go away. Farmers themselves are exploited by middlemen and global supermarket chains, which in turn leads to farmers’ exploitation of farm hands just in order to survive.

    The UN and other organisations have repeatedly warned the world will be out of topsoil in around 60 years. It takes nature 1,000 years to build 1cm of topsoil. Add a warming and drying climate and an additional 2 billion people, (and a history of a couple of millennia of wars over food and regular bouts of starvation) and it’s pretty clear that taking care of soils, and by extension, farmers, should be high on the priority list of every government.

    But farmer bashing is easier and is as old as civilisation itself. Because farmers themselves have their backs against the wall they can’t turn the massive degradation on their soils around – a vicious cycle and a tragedy that’s been unfolding for 200 years in Straya.

    Throw another shrimp on the barbie. Or bash a farmer today.

    • Any farmer that participates in slavery is scum.

      I have noticed a minority of farmers are speaking out against the exploitation of other human beings. These few farmers are decent human beings and I admire their integrity. The other farmers (most?) are scum.

      • Jevons ghostMEMBER

        I’ve had a bit to do with some of the more prominent regenerative farming practitioners over the years. Recently I read a book titled: “Dirt to Soil” by Gabe Brown, who farms in North Dakota and who has liaised with some of the better regenerative farmers in Australia. Gabes book is inspirational; one of the very best books on regenerative farming that I have come across, and I think that Australian farmers who are feeling a bit overwhelmed by things at present might get a bit of a gee up by having a read. Not so much to acquire a cookbook of farming recipes; more to see how he has learnt from his mistakes over the years and moved forward into profitability. Btw: Average yearly rainfall in North Dakota is 400 mm and like us they have their share of droughts.

        • +100

          Richard Perkins, Colin Seis, Joel Salatin, Bill Mollison – read or follow any of these people and realise there is hope if we are prepared to change our ways.

          • kierans777MEMBER

            And others in our own backyard people like Charles Massy

            (Edited as I missed Bill Mollison on the first read. One of the best thinkers this country has ever had)

        • kierans777MEMBER

          I also wonder if applying regenerative agricultural/permaculture techniques wouldn’t also bring about the the productivity gains without relying on huge amounts of labour or chemical inputs. Therefore it’s good for the environment and the economy.

      • @The Claw

        The majority of farmers are decent, highly skilled
        and extraordinarily hard working. Most city folk wouldn’t last a day. Farmers need help, not abuse.

        • But their demand is for unskilled labourers at below the minimum wage, forced to live in hostel accommodation that is expensive even by city standard.

          • The majority of farmers work and pay themselves similarly. Farming in this country is a tragedy and there are no quick fixes. City wokes slamming them and taking the high moral ground achieves nothing.

        • Any farmer behaving like a modern day plantation owner deserves to be called out for the scumbag that he is.

          I don’t care how ‘hard working’ or ‘highly skilled’ he maybe.

          • Is this 1820 or 2020?

            If your ‘hard working’ and ‘highly skilled’ mates can’t run their businesses without resorting to plantation style slavery, they deserve to go broke.

      • As said above, its not a farming issue, its an Australian issue. Play the ball, not the man or woman.

        The latest celebrity-chef-linked wage-theft scandal, with the high-end restaurant Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in Melbourne allegedly underpaying its staff by A$4 million, is the tip of the iceberg for wage exploitation in the hospitality industry.

        Since the 7-Eleven wage fraud scandal was exposed two years ago the convenience store giant has been battling a crisis in confidence. The exploitation of thousands of workers, most of them vulnerable migrants paid $10 an hour or less, outraged the nation with stores boycotted and social media in meltdown.

        The wage fraud scandal at Domino’s Pizza franchises turned into an even more serious charge of Visa fraud when workers are threatened with having their Visa sponsorship terminated if they report their employers to authorities for underpayment of wages.

    • Jevons ghostMEMBER

      One solution: plant billions and billions of indigenous trees in arid and semi arid areas of Australia. Preferably inland where they will attract moisture from the Indian Ocean (mimicking the natural biotic pump that moves water inland to the Amazon rain forest) and move it across the continent. Cloud seed as necessary to bring rain to the dead centre and points east on a predictable basis. The trees will also trap carbon, reducing atmospheric CO2 (too bad about the bucketloads of dissolved CO2 in the oceans, but never mind such trifles) and their trans-evaporation of water vapour will increase cloud cover, thus blocking sufficient insolation to bring about a cooling effect to the planet. How to get those billions of trees planted? Simply put a decent price on carbon; US$50/tonne sequestered will get the farmers up and at it big time.

        • Shame oil has peaked then as even BP’s last report mentions.

          Never mind, EV powered planes and heavy machinery will do the job – after another 50 years of genius tech. Oh but by then the planet will be 6-8 degrees warmer….and all the mining necessary to make the EVs will have added a few more degrees…..and trees that have never grown in our arid centre will somehow start to grow….

          The miracle of AI.

          (Edit – and money, silly me)

        • Jevons ghostMEMBER

          Terraforming? Checked out the term. Not what I’m on about. What I’m on about can be achieved with human hands and the ingenuity that we humans can demonstrate in times of adversity.

      • The andes and it’s rainfall and snow melt are what brings water to the amazon.
        You need to work on some decent mountain ranges if you want water in central Australia, not planting trees that will die from lack of water.

        • Jevons ghostMEMBER

          I plant trees using a local modification of the long stem planting method pioneered in the NSW Central Coast and Hunter Valley by Bill Hicks. In the main my native tree tube stock get no protection or artificial watering once planted. I’m getting greater than 90% survival at >= 2 months at the moment, despite there being at least 60 Eastern Greys and numerous bulldozing wombats on my 40 hectares. They sample about 5% of the plantings but because the modified long stem planting method protects and hydrates the root ball long term most of those sampled get new growth and remarkably this is left alone. I get about 600 mm a year on average, and admittedly not in full on drought just now. Sure its not semi arid but there are ways to address the ongoing water needs of native trees in semi arid regions as well. You may find inspiration by researching the work in Jordon carried out by our own Geoff Lawton. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

        • Jevons ghostMEMBER

          The Andes and snow melt may well bring water to the Amazonian rivers but it is the rain forests that bring the rain to the land where it is needed. Without them the rain clouds will pass the Amazonian land mass by and in all likelihood empty into the ocean. Which after all is where most of that melting ice will end up.

      • Trees are definitely part of the solution to cycle water more effectively. The chinese have done it very successfully using rapid succession plantings in very arid parts of their country.

        • Jevons ghostMEMBER

          And some of the early work on the re-vegetation of the Loess Plateau in China was mentored by Australian and New Zealand earth scientists. Oh, the irony of it all.

  4. “….this will drive farms to automate and lift productivity, boosting both profits and wages.”

    Farms are not factories.

    In a nutshell, soil is the earth’s largest living organism. A teaspoon of topsoil contains millions of micro organisms and if healthy, resembles a giant sponge capable of storing large amounts of water & CO2, and supporting life on earth.

    Tilling, plowing, logging & deforestation, laying soil bare, pouring chemicals and over grazing it – destroys it. Driving heavy machinery over it finishes the job.

    Contemporary factory farming is a crime against nature, humanity and all life on this planet

    • Jumping jack flash

      good point, and plus automation isn’t cheap. The stuff I build for meat processing factories is expensive. How do farmers pay for that?

      Don’t forget that farmers are just people like the rest of us schlubbs, and people need debt. Enormous mountains of it. As much debt as can be obtained, and then more.

      They pay for automation with debt of course, and they acquire the debt through profit maximisation from cheap labour.

  5. of course there is exploitation but picking fruits is not easy and it takes a while to become productive enough to deserve a proper wage from it.These rolling 3 months visa are somehow too short

  6. Jumping jack flash

    Its well and good to ask debt-soaked farmers, desperately requiring more debt, to pay their workers fairly.

    These labour costs will be added to the prices of their goods.

    In many cases supermarkets simply wont pay.

    In the cases where they do, the retail prices will rise.

    Wages are generally stagnant. So what do you think will happen? The farm workers will start buying the food from the supermarkets?

    We need the debt to grow at the correct rate first before we can even consider raising prices and then wages. The growing debt can provide the foundation to pay the higher prices and then kick off wage inflation. But it must grow at a suitable rate.

    One step at a time, and in the correct order. We should know by March whether the debt is growing fast enough.

  7. Can anyone explain why fruit/vegetable picking was a highly sort after job back in the 70’s, 80’s and grocery prices were still cheap. If you used one of the honesty boxes, $1 for a bucket of tomatoes. And the farmers wouldn’t pick the crops if they wouldn’t get a return. (Bundaberg…no lave labour back then.)

    • Even in the early ’90s I think you could still get decent money picking fruit. It was fvcking hard yakka, but I felt like I was getting paid well enough when I did it on school holidays (that said, probably coloured by still being a teenager living at home).

      As to why it’s not a liveable wage anymore, I imagine the usual suspects are at play. Property bubble, rent-seeking and mono/oligopolies.

  8. These migrants aren’t exploited.
    Everyone knows the game.

    Working holiday visa (coz they couldn’t get in as a foreign student or partner or via the NZ SCV or the many other loopholes).
    On entry – pre-organized work in vice or illegally in the city.

    Working holiday visa end date comes due.

    Off to the migration agent to see if they can churn onto a longer stay ‘student or partner visa etc.

    Advice is to go the working holiday visa extension first.

    The migration agent procurer will charge $5-8k for the visa extension.
    $3k to the labour ring & participant ‘farmers’.

    Off to the ‘farm’ & ‘hostel’.
    Sometimes a farm shed ‘converted’ to a hostel, but more often a run down old local rural property house converted into bunk share.

    15-20 people, 4 or 6 to a room in shared bunks.
    Packets of noodles, bag of rice, wifi deal & charged $200 a week ‘out of their wages’
    The foreign run labour ring van driver then picks them up in the morning.. Another charge.
    Off to the ‘make work’ paddock or orchard to pick stuff.
    Do the 89 days.
    Get the extension.
    Earn nothing, they are captive and it’s all calibrated so that the ‘accomodation, food & transport charges’ consume all the ‘wages’ earned.

    Some leave owing money and they all know the score, it’s about pretending to do something for a visa extension.

    Then once that’s over with – back to the city, to the migrant slums, to the factory, restaurant, brothel etc to then continue to live & work illegally.

    Pay a bit more say $8k and no need to even go.
    The agent, farmer and labour organizer will do the verification, timesheets and other falsified documents to say the migrant guestworker did the ‘regional & rural work’

    The farmers are all in on it.
    Especially the smaller farms or marginal ones as it’s one of their main sources of cash income.

    The real farms – are huge, mechanised, automated & they don’t bother with this racket. Or run it as a sideline cash income on some spare make work activity.

    Go visit some of these ‘working holiday’ farms.

    And observe the entire hostel (rural migrant slumshare) the van transport and work allocation.
    It’s an industry all of its own.

    Who ever complains?

    Usually a dumb western young adult who naively thought it would be a ‘genuine working holiday’.

    To find you don’t get paid, you live in filth and squalor, the actual work (it’s make work) is hard and nonsense, by design as no one really expects transient migrant guestworkers playing out a charade of peasant farm worker role to actually produce anything.

    The other complainant ?
    A migrant guestworker, usually Asian or Indian who has run out of options to further churn or extend their visa.
    So they will lodge a complaint (after no success in any other visa option) to try their luck in the appeals or protection visa process so ‘their case can be heard’ & get up to a 5 year extended stay full work rights.

    It’s all just yet another visa racket.

    Corrupted top to bottom.