The Shameful State of Australia’s Fruit Picking Industry

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ROTTEN APPLES

The Shameful State of Australia’s Fruit Picking Industry

Tuesday’s announcement of a free trade deal with the United Kingdom was cause for celebration for many around the country. Amongst those most thrilled with the development were British backpackers, both current and future, for whom the deal marked the end of farm work as a pre-requisite for the extension of working holiday visas.

Those among us who have frequented Bondi’s pubs or played Sunday League Soccer will be familiar with the requirement that backpackers spend 88 days completing specified work in rural and regional areas. Fewer perhaps, will have considered why such a program exists, how it works and why the British government would have sought to bring an end to the involvement of its citizens.

In short, backpackers are forced onto farms because there is a massive shortfall of people willing and able to pick the nation’s fruit. The program works by exploiting those who have the misfortune of getting caught up in the system and the British government has brought an end to the involvement of its citizens after an extended campaign brought the systemic exploitation to light.

Whilst Tuesday’s development is no doubt a triumph for backpacking Brits, those just turning their mind to the matter might well be wondering how the nation will still get its ‘two-a-day’ in their absence. The Department of Home Affairs can confidently assure such citizens that any concern is premature. The slack left by the shortage of backpackers will be picked up by the group tasked with doing much of the work already, Pacific Islanders.

Brought here under the Pacific Island Labour Mobility Project, Pacific Islanders are enticed by the prospect of earning up to three times as much as they might be able to back home. The Australian government considers it an ingenious arrangement, killing the proverbial ‘two birds with one stone’ by injecting income directly into the pockets of people in the Pacific whilst simultaneously addressing our rural labour shortage.

And perhaps it would be, if the Department of Home Affairs exercised proper oversight. In their absence the scheme has been brazenly exploited by bad actors in the form of labour hire contractors, leading the ABC to characterize the situation as a form of modern-day slavery.

The scheme may seem like a clever solution in theory, but it is hamstrung by one glaring structural issue; Pacific Islanders and Australian farmers don’t have much to do with each other. Labour Hire Companies stepped into the void, ostensibly functioning as a conduit between parties. In practice, they have managed to corrupt the arrangement on both sides, forcing farmers to pay a premium for their staff, and subjecting workers to gross underpayment and atrocious working conditions.

The scheme, which was described by La Trobe University’s Department of Social Inquiry as a ‘hotbed of exploitation’, effectively holds workers ransom, depriving them of their liberty by connecting their visas with their ongoing employment; employment that is controlled by the Labour Hire Companies that are exploiting them.

Workers have been left for days without food and income, are liable to lose their jobs and accommodation if they fail to show up for work on time and have been observed living in converted shipping containers whilst being grossly overcharged for the privilege.

In a report published last year, The McKell Institute criticized Labour Hire companies as well as the Australian government for the impact of the scheme, arguing that the program permits – through an omission of government action – underpayment and employment malfeasance to occur with effective impunity. Certainly, Labour Hire Companies carry much of the burden, but their exploitation would not have been possible if not for a broken program that prioritises meeting regional labor demand at the expense of workers.   

Tuesday’s decision to abolish the rural working requirement for British citizens was vindication for those who had long campaigned for its removal. The decision is an acknowledgment that the program, with its lack of regulation and oversight, was unfair and unreasonable.

And yet, it also begs the question, if it’s not fair or reasonable to ask British backpackers to take part in the scheme, why is it fair and reasonable to ask anyone else? 

Prime Ministers Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson lauded Tuesday’s deal as a ‘new dawn’ for our two countries. However, with respect to its implications for Australia’s fruit picking industry, ‘new dawn’ could hardly be less appropriate. Commonwealth nations profiting off the exploitation of vulnerable communities certainly sounds like a story we’ve heard before.

pacific islanders article image

ROTTEN APPLES

The Shameful State of Australia’s Fruit Picking Industry

Tuesday’s announcement of a free trade deal with the United Kingdom was cause for celebration for many around the country. Amongst those most thrilled with the development were British backpackers, both current and future, for whom the deal marked the end of farm work as a pre-requisite for the extension of working holiday visas.

Those among us who have frequented Bondi’s pubs or played Sunday League Soccer will be familiar with the requirement that backpackers spend 88 days completing specified work in rural and regional areas. Fewer perhaps, will have considered why such a program exists, how it works and why the British government would have sought to bring an end to the involvement of its citizens.

In short, backpackers are forced onto farms because there is a massive shortfall of people willing and able to pick the nation’s fruit. The program works by exploiting those who have the misfortune of getting caught up in the system and the British government has brought an end to the involvement of its citizens after an extended campaign brought the systemic exploitation to light.

Whilst Tuesday’s development is no doubt a triumph for backpacking Brits, those just turning their mind to the matter might well be wondering how the nation will still get its ‘two-a-day’ in their absence. The Department of Home Affairs can confidently assure such citizens that any concern is premature. The slack left by the shortage of backpackers will be picked up by the group tasked with doing much of the work already, Pacific Islanders.

Brought here under the Pacific Island Labour Mobility Project, Pacific Islanders are enticed by the prospect of earning up to three times as much as they might be able to back home. The Australian government considers it an ingenious arrangement, killing the proverbial ‘two birds with one stone’ by injecting income directly into the pockets of people in the Pacific whilst simultaneously addressing our rural labour shortage.

And perhaps it would be, if the Department of Home Affairs exercised proper oversight. In their absence the scheme has been brazenly exploited by bad actors in the form of labour hire contractors, leading the ABC to characterize the situation as a form of modern-day slavery.

The scheme may seem like a clever solution in theory, but it is hamstrung by one glaring structural issue; Pacific Islanders and Australian farmers don’t have much to do with each other. Labour Hire Companies stepped into the void, ostensibly functioning as a conduit between parties. In practice, they have managed to corrupt the arrangement on both sides, forcing farmers to pay a premium for their staff, and subjecting workers to gross underpayment and atrocious working conditions.

The scheme, which was described by La Trobe University’s Department of Social Inquiry as a ‘hotbed of exploitation’, effectively holds workers ransom, depriving them of their liberty by connecting their visas with their ongoing employment; employment that is controlled by the Labour Hire Companies that are exploiting them.

Workers have been left for days without food and income, are liable to lose their jobs and accommodation if they fail to show up for work on time and have been observed living in converted shipping containers whilst being grossly overcharged for the privilege.

In a report published last year, The McKell Institute criticized Labour Hire companies as well as the Australian government for the impact of the scheme, arguing that the program permits – through an omission of government action – underpayment and employment malfeasance to occur with effective impunity. Certainly, Labour Hire Companies carry much of the burden, but their exploitation would not have been possible if not for a broken program that prioritises meeting regional labor demand at the expense of workers.   

Tuesday’s decision to abolish the rural working requirement for British citizens was vindication for those who had long campaigned for its removal. The decision is an acknowledgment that the program, with its lack of regulation and oversight, was unfair and unreasonable.

And yet, it also begs the question, if it’s not fair or reasonable to ask British backpackers to take part in the scheme, why is it fair and reasonable to ask anyone else? 

Prime Ministers Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson lauded Tuesday’s deal as a ‘new dawn’ for our two countries. However, with respect to its implications for Australia’s fruit picking industry, ‘new dawn’ could hardly be less appropriate. Commonwealth nations profiting off the exploitation of vulnerable communities certainly sounds like a story we’ve heard before.