A report by the National Union of Workers released this month highlights how Australian capitalism continues to be built on the backs of migrants, in this case in the horticultural industry.

The report, Farm Workers Speak Out, looks at farm work in Victoria and reveals severe and widespread underpayment, racism, sexism, unsafe working conditions and autocratic control over workers’ lives.

It’s a situation in which, as a Fair Work report into farm work last year described, a person “is virtually bonded like a slave to a particular provider, on the basis they have been told they won’t have their visa extension signed unless they see out the season”.

Workers surveyed generally fell in to one of three visa categories: refugee protection visa pathways, Pacific seasonal work programs and working holiday. Thirty-five percent had no valid working visa. Only 2 percent of farm workers surveyed were citizens or permanent residents. Bosses’ control is intensified by the constant threat of deportation. 

And yet, in the face of considerable forces stacked against them, farm workers resist. The report itself was compiled largely by unionised workers, who held mass meetings and surveyed more than 650 of their colleagues. 

They discovered stories of resistance from workers like Putri. During a 10-hour shift, Putri’s contractor refused her request for the toilet, telling her to instead use a field. He controlled most details of her life – including her movements and what services she could access – and owned the house she lived in. 

But she grasped where her power was and organised an on-the-spot walk-off: “Seven of us got back together and went back to Vincent [the manager] ‘We need to go to a real toilet, now, and we want you to drive us there’. This time was different. He took us to the toilet then and whenever we needed to after that.”

Like Putri, 68 percent of the farm workers surveyed were employed by contractors or horticulture subcontractors and paid in cash – with no payslips or superannuation. 

In most cases accommodation and transport were arranged by the contractor. Another worker at Kalafatis, a pear orchard and packing shed in Shepparton, said that in his accommodation there were four people sleeping in one room and people sleeping in the lounge room. “A group of 10 could expect to pay $150 per person per week for a house they share” according to the report, “leaving workers with $100-200 in take-home pay per week”.

Sexism in the industry is rife, both male and female workers complaining about sexist behaviour by managers against women workers.

One worker, Jeronimo, in the report describes his supervisor attacking a female worker who didn’t speak English and threatening to kill her. The workers held a union meeting in response and demanded the supervisor’s removal. Their action was successful, as the report outlines: “Because we all stuck together and spoke up, we got a quick outcome and got the supervisor sent away”.

The legal minimum casual wage for farm work is $24.36 an hour. Two-thirds of workers surveyed were paid well below that: the average hourly wage was $14.80, and the lowest wage recorded was $4.60. 

A majority of the workers surveyed – 57 per cent – worked in farms that supplied the giant supermarket chains Woolworths and Coles.

One worker, Natasya, was paid $15 an hour during her first year working at Kalafatis. Natasya said she would often pack 300 to 400 boxes of pears, weighing around 14 kilograms, in a shift. Shifts in packing sheds are often 10 hours long. At the time of writing, pears are selling for $2.70 a kilogram at Woolworths. That means that in a day when Natasya made $150, the company she worked for and the supermarket made somewhere around $13,230 from her work alone.

Natasya, who is originally from Malaysia, said managers treat Asian workers differently from white workers. Another worker quoted in the report, Jeffry, explained, “[O]ne fear that a lot of seasonal workers have is that if we speak out, we will not be allowed to return back to Australia to work next season”. After helping to organise a union dispute, Jeffry had difficulty re-entering Australia from a trip home to Vanuatu.  

But the stories being told by migrant farm workers are not just of exploitation and oppression, but their ability to respond and resist collectively. In the words of Natasya, “We have to be brave; we have to be united to change things for farm workers”.