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.