By Leigh Johnston
The peak industry body for horticulture says law-abiding farmers are at breaking point because of chronic labour shortages that have made way for ‘racketeering’ around visas and asylum applications to increase.
AUSVEG chairman Bill Bulmer said farmers who paid Award wages were struggling to remain competitive and looking to exit the industry as rivals paid workers as little as $5 an hour.
Mr Bulmer said the cut-rate workers were the pawns of dodgy labour hire operators manipulating a flawed system whereby more than 200,000 people had arrived in Australia by air, applied for asylum and were now on bridging visas.
As a consequence of the labour shortage, “growers are held captive by unscrupulous operators” trying to do the right thing.
He says operators paying at or above Award rates are bearing the tarnished reputation of the industry in a climate where successive federal governments had failed to tackle labour shortages, and retailers paid lip service to ethical sourcing. Mr Bulmer is calling for a national labour hire accreditation system and a massive crackdown by federal authorities on both illegal workers and those involved in exploitation and underpayments.
“Australian growers will always prefer to hire local workers, but the reality is that not enough locals want to work on farms and forcing them to do so has failed to address the situation,” he said.
“The consequence of the labour shortage is that growers are held captive by unscrupulous operators who profit from the mistreatment of workers.”
Mr Bulmer said the growers who valued their workers and treated them fairly were being driven out of the industry because they couldn’t compete.
“I know of one labour hire company in Western Australia that boasts that they underpay migrant workers because they know they can get away with it,” he said.
Mr Bulmer said the Department of Immigration conducted intermittent farm raids but didn’t have the resources to deal with the problem.
“The government must act to enforce workplace legislation on farms. If people speed, they get a speeding ticket. Surely those who knowingly underpay workers should also expect to get caught and face severe penalties,” he said.
AUSVEG estimates tens of thousands of properly accredited and paid workers are needed to make up the shortfall if the industry is cleaned up and wants bigger and better visa programs.
The government is in talks about expanding the working holiday visa to countries including India, Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines as it looks to ease labour shortages.
In a survey by the National Union of Workers (NUW), two-thirds of workers in the fruit and vegetable industry are estimated to be earning below the minimum wage.
The NUW, which represents farmworkers, is urging Coles and Woolworths to sign an agreement with the union that requires all fresh food suppliers to comply with ethical labour standards. However, both supermarkets claim they already have sourcing policies which stipulate that suppliers must pay minimum wages and not use illegal workers.
Mr Bulmer said the same requirements should apply across all retail and wholesale avenues.
“The industry is only as strong as its weakest link and if one buyer doesn’t source the product ethically, it undercuts and undermines the entire industry,” he said.
Emma Germano, the horticulture president of the Victorian farmers federation, said that the Australian agriculture sector was at the “coalface” of the problem given the industry’s reliance on labour hire firms.
This meant growers feared being implicated in scams involving foreign workers, but were powerless to change the system. She said as many as 60% to 70% of workers on farms in some regions did not have proper work documents and were paid as little as $4 an hour.
“These poor workers who don’t have the law behind them will never come and work for us directly as growers. So as much as we might like to employ them directly, they’ve got a huge fear of retribution from these criminal syndicates who have often tricked them into coming into Australia, make them believe that they’ve got the right to work here when they get here, potentially taken their passports from them when they arrive,” Germano said.
“We’ve got growers who are paying upwards of $31 an hour for staff, and workers who are being paid as little as $4 or $8 an hour. That money is going somewhere in between. As a grower, I can assure you we would like for that money to be going into workers.”
Labor’s home affairs shadow minister, Kristina Keneally, has since slammed the Coalition government in a series of Tweets, saying the current government needs to clean up the immigration system: “Even the horticultural industry are crying out for Peter Dutton to clean up the immigration system because “chronic labour shortages that have allowed racketeering around visas and asylum applications to flourish.”