Yesterday, the Senate's job security committee heard a lot of shocking evidence of worker exploitation on Australian farms. Take 58-year-old Xueliang Wang from China worked 11-hour shifts picking fruit in NSW for $10 an hour. He lived with his wife in a shipping container - paying $75 rent each per week - with 50 other people on an accommodation site with four showers.
Wang stated that he started working at a greenhouse in March 2020 after coming to Australia almost two years earlier. "While working on the farm, the boss does not allow the workers to talk to outsiders about the pay and conditions at the farm," he said.
Despite the job being advertised with a $17 hourly rate, he earned well below that, working from 6 am until it was dark, but Wang said he could not find a better job because of the language barrier and his lack of connections in Australia.
Australian Workers' Union official Ron Cowdrey believes some farmers are complicit in exploitation because they are aware of contractors' actions but do nothing to stop them. Deakin University's Elsa Underhill has found repeated examples of high levels of exploitation of backpackers from Asia and Europe between 2013 and 2018. Some were paid as little as $3 an hour.
Underhill said if farmers were willing to pay higher wages they could risk profits because of supermarket price inflexibility. "Farmers are in a bit of squeeze," she told the hearing. The AWU, supermarket workers' union SDA, and Transport Workers' Union are in a partnership with supermarkets to try to stamp out problems in the supply chain.
Nationals senator Matt Canavan said the AWU should focus more on cost pressures farmers faced to make a profit.