By Kalinga Seneviratne
Australia’s farming sector has been badly hit by the closing of the borders due to the Covid-19 pandemic and with the harvesting season on the horizon there is an estimated shortage of 25,000 fruit pickers and harvesting machinery operators across Australia.
While the farmers are asking the government to provide special provisions for vaccinated foreign workers to be brought to work in the farms, labour rights advocates here says that thousands of Australians on government welfare are not willing to work on “slave wages” on farms.
Before Australia closed its borders at the onset of Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, about 70 per cent of the Australian agriculture workforce was foreign, and farmers relied on up to 10,000 backpacker visa holders from the UK each year. They were young people who were on a 2-year “working holiday” visa, which was dubbed here as “rent-a-Pom” scheme.
In June, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his British counterpart Boris Johnson signed a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA), with one of the provisions of this FTA the extension of this visa scheme for people up to 35 years of age and will be valid for three years rather than two. But the condition in the old agreement that these visa holders have to work in Australian farms for 88 days of a year has been taken out that has upset farmers.
In June, Australia also announced that a new farm work visa will be offered to citizens of the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) group to help Australian farmers to harvest their crops. The details are yet to be worked out in consultation with the ASEAN governments, and the visa is not expected to be made available until next year. But, a similar Pacific seasonal workers program, has brought some 40,000 workers into Australia from South Pacific Island nations and Timor-Leste since 2012 and provided some $150 million in remittances for their families back home.
Already such labour migration programs across ASEAN countries are well known for exploiting unskilled workers both by unscrupulous labour recruitment agents and employers. The Pacific Islander scheme was more regulated than the labour flows across Asia, while British backpackers were more able to negotiate with employers and agents, and asylum-seekers (the other reservoir) of workers came under Australian labour protection laws.
The National Farmers Federation (NFF) President Fiona Simson has welcomed the government’s ASEAN agriculture workers visa scheme describing it as a long-promised visa scheme. “We’ve had these promises for years now. It’s time to deliver”, she told the ABC.
ABC TV’s Landline program on August 15 featured a group of “happy” Timorese workers who have been coming to work in Australia for the past five years at the Mossmont Nurseries, a stone fruit, almond and citrus farm in rural Griffiths, a well-known grain producing area.
Jonathan Moss, field production manager at the farm told ABC that the workers are like his “family” and they could now run the farm without his supervision. He describes the seasonal workers program as a “brilliant program” and argues that it is “pure aid” to a developing country.
“The guys come to Australia, they are paid Australian award rates or even more. It is paid directly to them, and it is sent home to their families. It changes lives and I’m proud to be part of it,” he told ABC.
Speaking on the same program his Timorese worker Calastino Dalman said, “in one day I get 10 dollars in Timor-Leste. In Australia I work seven thirty to four and I get 200 dollars a day. I use the money to build my home in Timor. It’s important for me to work in Australia”.
His co-worker Acacio Xavier said that by working in Australia he has bought his own car, “started my own business in Timor-Leste and I built a home to support my family. I also help to send my sister and brother to university there”.
Marcia Kelly, who runs a labour recruitment service from the Timor-Leste capital Dilli says that for people like this coming to Australia is like winning a lottery. Moss says he needs another 60 workers for his farm when the spring harvesting season comes up next month, and other farms in the region needs up to 700 workers.
“We have over 1000 workers ready to go, and all of them would have had their second vaccination by end of August,” says Kelly. But the Australian government is still refusing to open its borders to foreign workers. The Federal government blames the state governments for not having the necessary quarantine facilities.
The government has been trying to get thousands of welfare recipients on its Centrelink program to work in farms, but the take up rate has not been good. The New Daily in an investigation found out that only 30 farms have signed up to the ‘Fair Farms’ program under Australia’s newly enacted Anti-slavery Act and that most young Australians are finding it difficult to find farm work because they are “not as exploitable” as foreigners.
In December last year, the federal government released a National Plan of Action to Combat Modern Slavery, a five-year plan for preventing, disrupting, and prosecuting crimes of modern slavery. Industry groups and the federal government see the ‘Fair Farms’ scheme as a mechanism to clean up Australia’s horticulture industry, where exploitation of workers is seen as a chronic issue. The scheme is backed by the NFF and major supermarket chains such as Coles, Aldi and Woolworths.
The New Daily notes that many of the Australian workers have complained about only earning between A$60-80 a day, and that they have to go to Centrelink to top off their earnings. Another finding was that farms and labour-providing agents operate under an arrangement that foreign farm labour rent hostel accommodation from them as part of the employment arrangements which would cost around A$300 a week.
Local job seeker Ben Thomas says that when the government introduced new foreign worker visas it makes it more difficult for locals to find jobs, and the government “accuse us of being lazy”. He points out that many farms have advertised jobs as “only for backpackers” because those living locally “cannot be exploited unlike foreigners”.
Thomas believes that employers can circumvent the anti-slavery act, for example when most farms want you to sign a contract that does not guarantee you the minimum wage of A$750 (USD 545) for a 38-hour week. “They want us to sign a contract agreeing that we understand that we would not receive that wage for a piece work payment job,” he says. “Most foreigners would sign it.”
“At the start of the supply chain that brings Australian fruit and vegetables to consumers in both domestic and overseas markets, there have long been troubling stories about the workers who labour in fields and orchards to harvest the bounty,” noted veteran Australian journalist Hamish McDonald in a recent opinion piece published by Japan’s Nikkei Asia. He argues that the Australian farm lobby wants “a more compliant and fearful workforce” that will not complain like the British backpackers (who are usually university educated).
“The proposed scheme takes Australia back toward the 19th century where white settlers had indentured Pacific Islander ‘Kanakas’ cutting their sugar cane, gangs of Chinese coolies clearing bushland, and other Asians diving for pearls,” he points out. “(Australian PM) Morrison should let this bad idea lapse before it generates negative stories that will far outweigh any significant economic benefit to Southeast Asia.”