With backpackers and those on working holiday visas failed to turn up this year, mostly due to the pandemic, in effect so did a large part of Australia’s seasonal workforce. Lacking as many as 30,000 workers this season, some farmers may have little choice but to walk away from millions of dollars-worth of crops. Australians themselves it appears are less than enthused by the idea of doing the work, and it shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise.
A new report, commissioned by a handful of Australia’s unions, found that some blueberry pickers in Coffs Harbour were pocketing as little as $3 an hour, a fraction of the $24 promised by the minimum award. Others described arrangements that saw them forced to pay their employer for accommodations, food, transport and even equipment, which will reduce their earnings further.
Australian Workers’ Union reaction
The Australian Workers’ Union called the findings “explosive” and has called for a Royal Commission into the “exploitation, wage theft, and abuse” they say is rife across Australian farms. The area has seen a massive expansion in the number of blueberry farms over the past five years, and the region now supplies more than 65 per cent of the country’s fruit.
The report noted while “there are well intentioned farmers and larger companies operating in the Coffs Coast blueberry industry, the dramatic growth of the blueberry sector in the absence of policy safeguards, and the ever increasing demand for affordable labour, has made the region a target for nefarious labour hirers”.
Australian Workers’ Union national secretary Daniel Walton said: “This shocking new report can be added to the mountain of research indicating that Australian farms have become a hotbed of wage theft, exploitation, and worker abuse. It’s not just Coffs Harbour either – pick a spot on the map, and you will find outrageous exploitation.”
While that’s not to say there aren’t agricultural operations that work in good faith, the tarnished reputation of some within the industry is clearly enough to make most Australians think twice.
Faced with the prospect that government incentives alone weren’t going to fix the labour shortfall, Agricultural Minister David Littleproud has indicated that state governments would need to fly in Pacific Islander workers.