Citrus farmers in Queensland dumped tonnes of fruit in May, complaining they wouldn’t make a profit this year. The scenes were reminiscent of what John Steinbeck called a “crime beyond denunciation” in his classic novel The Grapes of Wrath: while the poor starved during the Great Depression, the orange harvest was left to rot in order to keep prices—and therefore profits—from falling.
The Queensland farmers say they were forced into this due to labour shortages, the latest in a consistent string of media reports about the plight of Australian farmers since the pandemic began. But the reported shortages haven’t prompted them to improve the industry’s notoriously bad conditions in order to attract more workers.
A new report on farm work by Unions NSW and the Victorian-based Migrant Workers Centre, Working for $9 a day: Wage Theft and Human Rights Abuses on Australian Farms, has found that 78 percent of backpacker farm workers surveyed between September 2020 and February 2021 were underpaid. Some workers reported earning less than $1 per hour. Only 2 percent earned the minimum award rate for casuals. The report reconfirms earlier findings: what agriculture industry heads brush off as the methods of a few rogue farmers are in fact systemic.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, farmers have been complaining about how the reduced number of seasonal and migrant workers has hit them while they’re down. They say the work pays well, but locals are just unwilling to do it. In January, the ABC reported that Victorian farmers were dumping $150,000 worth of celery due to labour shortages. Bill Bulmer, chair of the peak horticulture industry body AUSVEG, told the ABC, “It’s a sad statement to say, but with JobSeeker and JobKeeper, the locals don’t seem to want to take up the manual labour. The standard wage for casual workers is around $27 per hour ... so it’s not an issue of not paying enough money.”
But the workers surveyed for the report say otherwise. Only 2 percent reported earning $26 per hour or more. Eighty percent were underpaid while working on the dominant and controversial piece rate system, in which workers are paid by the quantity of produce harvested rather than time working. Unions have rightly argued that this system, especially without a minimum pay floor, facilitates hyper-exploitation and provides a loophole for employers to avoid paying award rates. But even on hourly rates, more workers were underpaid than not, 61 percent earning less than the legal hourly rate.
The reality is that farm bosses have created an entire industry model based on underpayment. As the director of the Migrant Workers Centre, Matt Kunkel, told Red Flag: “The industry is one that only exists on the hyper-exploitation of workers, and something needs to be done about it”.
“Farms are no different to any other business in Australia; they’re extracting as much profit as they can from the workers”, Kunkel explains. “There are large numbers of people who are effectively forced to work on farms if they want to stay in the country, and employers have a lot of power over them. They’re using that power to underpay their workers, steal wages and push down conditions, knowing they are less likely to complain because, if they do, they might not be able to stay. So this idea that there is some kind of labour shortage on farms and that farmers have no role to play in resolving the circumstances that lead to this so-called shortage, we would dispute that.”
Examples of wage theft in the industry are not hard to find. Take Bill Bulmer, who assured the ABC that workers were paid $27 an hour, for example. In addition to being the chair of AUSVEG, Bulmer is also the owner of Bulmer Farms, which, in 2019, was accused by the then National Union of Workers of underpaying workers, unilaterally reducing picking rates and threatening any worker considering joining the union. Ironically, just weeks earlier Bulmer had complained of a labour shortage and that farmers who treated their workers fairly were being driven out of the industry: “The consequence of the labour shortage is that growers are held captive by unscrupulous operators who profit from the mistreatment of workers”, Bulmer said in 2019, before the pandemic had caused new immigration restrictions and border closures. Despite the irony and blatant misrepresentation of the extent of the issue, Bulmer did have a point: it is uncompetitive to pay legal wages, and it has been since long before farmers took advantage of the pandemic to intensify their complaints about labour shortages.
An earlier union audit of job advertisements provides further evidence that the pandemic has not changed farmers’ disposition towards workers. The audit by Unions NSW of 1,000 horticulture job advertisements between December 2019 and September 2020 suggested that more than 96 percent of the piece rates advertised would translate into earnings below the minimum wage. “Unions NSW’s audit confirms the levels of exploitation in the horticultural industry reported in academic research remains unchanged, despite the farm sector’s claims of labour shortages”, the report read.
It’s not that the pandemic hasn’t affected farmers—it has wounded an industry that relies on migrant populations for a hyper-exploitable workforce. But for that they deserve no sympathy. Temporary visa schemes have been used to recruit farm workers since the mid-1990s. Workers relying on employer immigration sponsorship and ongoing employment to stay in the country are predictably favoured by bosses looking to skirt legal wage requirements—although migrant farm workers have led some heroic union campaigns in recent years despite this. Eighty-four percent of workers surveyed for the new report were on temporary visas. The report found that those on temporary visas were more likely than citizens to be underpaid, but that the vast majority of both categories were underpaid—80.1 percent and 71.2 percent respectively.
Farmers and politicians confidently claim that local workers and unemployed are unwilling to do farm work. But we don’t know what would happen if they paid legal wages, because they have refused to do so, even in the face of a reported 26,000 shortfall in seasonal workers. Indeed, as the New Daily has reported, when a recruitment company offered to find local workers—i.e. not highly exploitable temporary migrants—for farmers during the pandemic, it was unable to secure a single placement, despite receiving more than 1,500 applications in three days. This suggests that an unwillingness to pay, rather than work, is at the root of the problem.
Despite an abundance of evidence testifying to the abusive nature of the industry, Australian farmers never seem to pass up an opportunity to play victim in the press. The pandemic has been a big opportunity for bosses across the board in this regard, with many spending much of the last year creating narratives that lay the basis for government handouts. Farmers are particularly adept at this, and governments are all ears. This is despite the fact that the Horticulture Statistics Handbook recorded a significant increase in the agricultural industry’s value over 2019 and 2020 “despite the challenging growing and market conditions”: “Although production volume had decreased by 1.5 percent due to seasonal conditions such as drought and bushfires”, the handbook reads, “value increased by 4.5 percent, from $14.4 billion to $15.1 billion”.
Between 2000 and 2019, Australian farmers received more than $8 billion in drought relief funds, farm management deposit schemes have been created to help farmers defer tax payments, and a “future drought relief” fund of $100 million annually was set up in 2020, the year the drought broke. The 2021-22 Queensland state budget also allocated $71.4 million to drought assistance for future droughts. And now farmers are also receiving a further $50 million financial assistance to deal with rural Australia’s mouse plague, ironically a problem contributed to by unsustainable farming methods. The federal government has also announced it will waive $51 million of debt for farmers who have received illegitimate income support over the past few years by “underestimating” their income.
Meanwhile, workers on temporary visas are denied any welfare at all. The sort of government support and sympathy farmers receive is something farm workers can only dream of. The message is clear: paying starvation wages and leaving food to rot because you won’t pay a cent more is encouraged and rewarded in our society, while those struggling to survive on criminally low wages are left to starve.