The Seasonal Workers Program (SWP) and Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) are widely regarded as being the best regulated farm visa programs. Yet these too were recently exposed for “modern slavery” when a a class action was lodged against labour hire firms on behalf of Pacific Island workers amid a “pandemic of worker abuse”.
According to Stewart Levitt of law firm Levitt Robinson:
“There is literally a race to the bottom, intensified by the ramping up of the SWP by the federal government”…
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Mr Levitt likened the program to “blackbirding”, the 19th century practice of coercing South Sea islanders to work in Queensland’s cane fields.
“There is a pandemic of worker abuse which is spreading like the Delta virus”…
Farm workers employed under the SWP have told The Australian of being forced to work 12-hour days with the only break being the time it took them to be bussed from one property to another, working into the night under tractor lights.
Last week, The Guardian reported that 1,181 Pacific Island workers had absconded from their employers, which are normally labour hire companies because they are “often treated poorly and living in isolation without proper food and accommodation” and are subjected to “substandard and inhumane conditions”.
As Abul Rizvi noted, “if there is such a shortage of farm labour, and farmers and the farm lobby insist that they treat these workers well, why are so many absconding?… Would we really be seeing such large numbers of these workers absconding and applying for asylum?”
If the “well regulated” SWP and PLS schemes are being systematically exploited, just imagine how bad the other farm visa programs are?
In response to the exploitation pandemic, Greens MP David Shoebridge is now pushing to amend the state’s modern slavery act to empower the anti-slavery commissioner to investigate the exploitation of seasonal workers and require labour hire companies to produce documents like pay slips:
“If you’re creating an anti-slavery commissioner and you don’t have it look at the sector that is currently the most notorious for having slave-like conditions then what are we doing it for?” Shoebridge said. “It’s not just in the interest of the seasonal Pacific workforce that these powers are in place; it’s also in the interest of the agricultural sector and the overwhelming majority of ethical farmers who see the sector’s reputation tarnished.”The exploitation of workers in the horticulture industry, particularly of temporary workers from the Pacific has been well known for years — there have been years of reports by workplace regulator the Fair Work Ombudsman illustrating widespread and systemic exploitation. That was before the pandemic appeared to accelerate the issue — earlier this month The Australian reported that more than 1200 Pacific Island workers abandoned their workplace over the past year, more than five times the number the previous year, and the Fair Work Commission delivered an utterly withering assessment of practices in the industry. None of which have stopped the government backing the industry, producing a scare campaign aimed at Pacific pickers, warning them they may “bring shame to their families” if they run away from their jobs and risk having their visa cancelled.
In light of the widespread exploitation across farms, it is hard to fathom that the Morrison Government recently launched the Agricultural Visa program that provides pathways for permanent residency for workers from 10 South-East Asian nations provided they pledge to become indentured with an employer for at least three years.
As noted by Rizvi, “it now seems inevitable Australia will join the many nations around the world where exploitation and abuse of low skill guest workers is just a normal part of the economy and society”.
These Agricultural Visas will only make the power imbalance and exploitation even worse and have laid the groundwork for another Coalition immigration debacle.
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