Farm visa slaves the new bin chickens

Over many years we have witnessed a conga-line of evidence showing that temporary migrants have been ruthlessly exploited on Australia’s farms, which has frequently been labelled “modern slavery”.

In March the federal government also released a 327-page report from the National Agricultural Labour Advisory Committee, which explicitly admitted that the agricultural industry’s overreliance on cheap migrant labour is bad for productivity and unsustainable:

Australia’s main competitors in agriculture are either ahead or running very close. In many ways, Australia is at a crossroads. Either its enterprises go all out to modernise by learning and adopting new methods, or they fall behind the others, occupying increasingly uncomfortable niches, relying on inadequately trained, low productivity workers, using the same old approaches that worked yesterday, and then finding themselves in a situation where business as usual has suddenly turned into business in decline…

The report noted that the Working Holiday Maker (WHM) scheme, which enables farms to employ backpackers, is regularly abused and rife with exploitation, and recommended strengthening regulations and standards up to the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) scheme. It also called for better regulation of labour hire companies.

Today, The Australian reports that some temporary migrants working on Australia’s farms have been forced to eat food from bins because of the low pay rates received for picking fruit:

Visa workers have made sworn statements to the Fair Work Commission about their poor pay and conditions in support of an Australian Workers Union application to guarantee that workers are entitled to be paid a minimum hourly award rate.

Recent research by Unions NSW and the Migrant Workers Centre in Victoria found 78 per cent of horticulture workers said they were underpaid, with some earning less than $1 an hour.

In a witness statement to the commission, a 32-year-old Taiwanese national said she picked strawberries on farms in South Australia and Queensland in 2018, and was paid a piece rate of 60 cents per kilogram.

“I worked 12 hours a day, but I could only make $50 per day,” she said. “I slowly progressed my speed so I could earn $100 per day after three months”…

To save money, my friends and I did dumpster diving after the closure of supermarkets”…

In response, the Australian Workers Union (AWU) has lodged an application with the Fair Work Commission to amend the Horticulture Award to guarantee a minimum casual rate of pay for all farm workers. However, the AWU is worried the federal government will oppose the application because it would stymie farms’ ability to exploit migrant workers:

“The government will fight this because it undermines their new strategy of bringing in easily exploited workers from South East Asia. The whole point of the new ASEAN visa is to open up new streams of workers who can be easily deceived and intimidated at work. Making it easy for these workers to understand if they’re being short-changed is the last thing the farming lobby wants.”

The AWU’s skepticism is well founded. In recent months, the Morrison Government has implemented four immigration-related reforms aimed squarely at pushing down wages, namely:

  • Uncapping the number of hours international students can work while studying in Australia;
  • Giving farmers a dedicated agricultural visa so that they can more easily hire foreign workers from South East Asian Nations;
  • Giving easier access to UK working holidaymakers under the newly signed free trade agreement; and
  • Adding an extra 22 occupations to the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List, in turn giving these occupations priority processing for migration and travel exemptions.

Without such easy access to low-paid migrants, Australian businesses would be forced to raise wages to attract local workers. These higher wages would, in turn, encourage firms to seek out labour-saving technologies and automation, thereby raising the economy’s productivity.

With Australia’s border closed and the foreign worker tap shut off, we have already witnessed multiple examples of Australian farms undertaking productivity-enhancing investments in labour saving technologies, thus proving our point.

Sadly, the Morrison Government’s recent decision to give farmers easier access to cheap, exploitable migrants will undermine future investment by keeping wages artificially low, reducing incentives to automate.

The outcome will be the polar opposite of the recommendations from the National Agricultural Labour Advisory Committee above, which wants to see farmers “go all out to modernise by learning and adopting new methods”. Instead, the expansion of “inadequately trained, low productivity workers” will dilute the capital base and cause farm productivity to stagnate.

The whole exploitative visa system needs to be overhauled, not expanded by the slave driving Morrison Government.

Unconventional Economist
Latest posts by Unconventional Economist (see all)

Comments

  1. “I worked 12 hours a day, but I could only make $50 per day,” she said. “I slowly progressed my speed so I could earn $100 per day after three months”

    Controversial opinion … but what is wrong about the above situation? I think as long as we are upfront about the pay and conditions you will be able to find folks from poorer countries willing to do a spell here to make some cold hard. $100 bucks a day is an amazing wage compared to many third world countries. They should just make sure they give them proper (and not exploitative) room and board and then I think it could be a win-win. You kind of want to tell the ag sector to ‘help themselves but no spoil themselves’ which is a saying that can go for much of Australia. Being greedy ruins it for everyone.

    I think it is better for Australia that this is structured as temporary rather than permanent migrants.

    • Fishing72MEMBER

      You ever heard of the term “lowest common denominator”?

      Yeah, that’s who every other Australian will be competing against for employment after the hospitality, construction, retail, financial, health,medical, aged care industries all throw tantrums until they’re granted the same below living wages as agriculture.

      I’m actually a bit disappointed that there’s someone who cares enough about the economic management of Australia who needs this explained to them. Maybe it’s a case of “trying to get someone to understand something when their profit margin depends on them not understanding it”?

    • Why not $5 a day, it is a lot less than $50 but in some parts of Africa would still be considered good (just ask Gina Rheinhardt). Heck there are probably a lot of people that would work for free for five years just to escape the war ravaged hellholes they are trapped in. You would have to come up with a trendy new term for working for free the such gracious business owners that would have them, now that BLM has made slavery rather unpopular of late.

    • These people are not coming here from Cambodia or Vietnam to pick berries for a couple of years, just like the uber driver from India or Pakistan isn’t here to study some useless course.

      They’re here to acquire permanent residency and family reunion visas as that means access to our welfare and healthcare systems for their elderly relatives and extended families.

    • What’s wrong from an economic perspective? There is a limit to human productivity – one can only pick so many berries per hour no matter how much you improve your skill sets. However, automation can far surpass human labor productivity. Think of the tractor vs farming by hand.

      We want an economic system that is geared towards improving productivity – not stalling it and trying to compete by paying people less. That’s the opposite of progress and decreases living standards.

      More importantly, what’s wrong from an equity, social and human dignity perspective? See the last line of the above paragraph as well as other comments. We should be aiming to decrease human burdens, not increase them.

    • drsmithyMEMBER

      Controversial opinion … but what is wrong about the above situation?

      The part where someone in Australia is only being paid $50/day for 12 hours work while minimum wage would be [checks notes] about $220.

      Being greedy ruins it for everyone.

      That’s some top-shelf irony, right there.

    • C'est de la folieMEMBER

      Why not just offer indentured places for kids

      You could sleep them two to a bed and feed them less and the 50 bucks a day would seem more to them. It would even help them come to terms with the workforce ahead (weaning them off the ludicrous notions of human decency, opportunity, and respect for their fellow man) and start them on the road to becoming humanity hating psychopaths with the interpersonal skills to fit into the management structures of the future – we could give them a knout when they graduate…..

    • NoodlesRomanovMEMBER

      Notoriously silent on this aren’t they? Enforcement of minimum wage would disincentivize brining in migrants so if you speak up about it you might look racist. Bound up by their stupid woke idealism.

  2. Way past time you looked past the mock outrage of ‘slave labour’ and really assess why this is occurring, Lvo.

    It’s the other side of the wages coin – in order to pay farm workers a fair wage, farmers need to be paid a fair price for their produce, which is currently being rorted by supermarkets and middlemen – an age-old predicament that eventually results in sky high prices, then ultimately, mass starvation.

    You would do well to remember that food is not just another ‘industry’ but a basic necessity; bottom line is humans need to eat three times per day and in the driest inhabited continent, and faced with critical water and soil issues and a bloated and unsustainable population, three meals a day may become the defining issue of the day within 20 years.⁷

    Regurgitating the same old arguments of automation, automation, automation reveals your profound ignorance of a complex issue.