Australian Agricultural Bosses Can’t Find Workers. Maybe They Should Try Paying More.

Agricultural bosses and their allies are accusing Australians of being work-shy as they face a post-pandemic labor shortage. But it’s low wages and abusive working conditions that make it hard for them to find workers. The solution is obvious: decent pay for decent work.

Broccoli crop being harvested near Robinvale in Victoria, Australia.(Auscape/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

As the autumn harvest season begins, Australian horticulture is reportedly facing a crisis. According to a website set up by the National Farmers Federation — where farmers can anonymously self-report crop losses — farmers have lost over $45 million since December last year. A shortage of pickers, they claim, means that crops are rotting in the fields.

The farming industry and their political allies argue that the only solution is to allow the immediate return of international workers. This has dovetailed with a conservative narrative accusing unemployed Australians of being work-shy.

According to the CEO of the national peak body for vegetable growers: “Whether we like it or not . . . we just simply can’t get Australians to do [farmwork].” In July last year, federal agriculture minister David Littleproud agreed: “Even when our social security payment for the dole was $550 a fortnight, we couldn’t get people off the couch to go and pick fruit.”

New South Wales agriculture minister Adam Marshall backed Littleproud up, saying “Australians are lazy and soft when it comes to this kind of work . . . they are being paid to stay on the couch.” National Party leader Michael McCormackeven encouraged young Australians to consider picking fruit because it would make a “great Instagram story.”

Needless to say, these arguments are way off the mark, and so are the solutions put forward. The causes of this labor shortage lie elsewhere.

(Not) Reaping What They Sow

In recent years, international workers have picked around 70 percent of Australian fruit and vegetables. This workforce consists of “backpackers” and other migrants who come to Australia on Working Holiday Maker (WHM) visas, temporary Pasifika and Timorese workers employed under the Seasonal Worker Program (SWP), plus international students and undocumented migrants.

In 2020, international border closures dramatically reduced the supply of such workers. Meanwhile, state border restrictions prevented many seasonal migrant workers who were already in Australia from following the harvest trail around the country.

With the international travel ban unlikely to be fully lifted this year, we won’t be seeing the return of WHM visa holders soon. Victoria has recently struck a deal to bring in 1,500 Pacific Islanders, while Western Australia and Tasmania have recruited a few hundred SWP workers. But with a claimed national shortfall of 26,000 horticulture workers, these moves are unlikely to make much of a dent.

The figure of 26,000 missing workers is most likely an overestimate. The study that produced it didn’t take account of undocumented workers, estimated to make up between 80 and 90 percent of the workforce in some regions, many of whom are still in the country.

It certainly makes no sense to blame young or unemployed workers for the shortfall. To begin with, there are at least some job seekers interested in doing farmwork. In mid-February, the New Daily reported that ten thousand unemployed people had taken up fruit-picking work, with almost a third of those starting after November 2020. DESE has confirmed to Jacobin that the number is now eleven thousand.

Although a federal government program offering fruit pickers $6,000 to relocate to regional areas attracted fewer than five hundred applicants, this was probably due in part to the bureaucratic complexities of applying.

Agriculture Victoria has also offered a $2,430 bonus for those who do at least eight weeks’ work on a farm, filling Facebook feeds with promotional posts urging locals to “take on the Big Victorian Harvest.” However, judging by the comments on some of these ads, the uptake might not be too high either. As one commenter asks (and answers): “What’s the hourly rate? Oh, that’s right. Farmers only pay slave wages and wonder why people aren’t interested.”

This cuts to the heart of the matter. It’s not laziness that has stopped workers from picking fruit — it’s their justified sense of entitlement to a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. If we “simply can’t get Australians” to do seasonal picking work, the main reason is that many fruit and vegetable growers offer work that is stressful, exhausting, but poorly paid.

The Wages of Sin

A number of recent reports into Australian horticulture have shown that the industry is rife with employers who pay below the minimum wage. They undercut the legal minimum wages by deploying a number of tricks: paying extremely low piece rates, falsifying records, or withholding pay slips.

They frequently shortchange their workers in other ways too, by providing substandard, cramped accommodation, or by inflating payday deductions for transport, accommodation, and equipment. The reports also found that horticultural employers have a record of harassing and bullying workers, failing to investigate allegations of sexual harassment, and sacking their employees unfairly.

Nor is this just a case of a few bad apples in an otherwise upstanding industry. As Dr Joanna Howe argues:

The level of exploitation in the Australian horticulture industry is not the exception to the rule. It’s the business model used by most farm employers and labor-hire companies.

A number of factors leave farmworkers vulnerable to exploitation, including geographical isolation, the limited rights enjoyed by casual workers, and an industry minimum pay that allows piece rates with no minimum wage floor. Documented and undocumented migrant workers alike also suffer because of their status as noncitizens.

To be eligible for a second-year visa, WHM visa holders must produce pay slips from their employers. SWP participants require continuing sponsorship from their employers to remain in the country. Undocumented workers have to rely on informal employment. In addition, many migrant workers have poor English-language skills, or lack knowledge of their labor rights in Australia.

While migrant horticulture workers are technically entitled to the same wages and conditions as Australians, the different regulatory frameworks associated with multiple visa categories have produced a segmented labor force. This gives employers an incentive to maximize profits by employing more vulnerable, cheap, and “flexible” migrant workers.

As the report Towards a Durable Future puts it, farmers often prefer this migrant workforce because of “their labor productivity, flexibility, ease of recruitment and [business-friendly] regulatory burdens,” leading to a “race to the bottom in labor standards.” Because WHM visas are dependent on employment, it “gives contractors and recruitment agents the opportunity to exploit vulnerable workers eager to remain in Australia.”

Unlike the SWP program, the WHM program isn’t officially a labor-market program. As a result, according to the report, “there are almost no additional requirements on growers who use the visa to access workers, and no additional mechanisms for oversight and monitoring.”

A 35-year-old Indonesian horticulture worker, who spoke to Jacobin on the condition of anonymity, said that in the last ten years, she and her friends

have worked for extremely low piece rates and hourly wages as low as $16–$18 per hour. The work is almost always organized through labor hire contractors, who often paid us below the standard wage while taking a large cut.

Her story is by no means unique. Both reports contain testimonies from migrant workers that are even more harrowing.

Upsetting the Apple Cart

Farmers aren’t facing labor shortages as such, but rather a shortfall of particular types of workers — namely, workers who they can oblige to put up with poor conditions, low pay, and unreliable hours. Some work visas are designed to cater to this demand by setting low minimum hours per week or by limiting visa holders to horticultural work.

An investigation by the New Daily in November last year looked at a recruitment company established at the start of the pandemic to find Australians farmwork: its team received more than 1,500 applications, “but reported that the farmers they approached refused to employ any Australian citizens.” More recent data from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) found that employers rejected 3,500 Australian job seekers who had recently applied for farmwork.

There’s a simple remedy available for farm employers who find themselves short of workers. Farms that have offered higher wages and better conditions — including more stable, long-term work — have not faced the same difficulties.

Sectors like construction and mining have no problem finding Australians prepared to do physically strenuous jobs that are often located in remote areas, since they offer relatively good work conditions and pay. And that’s largely thanks to high union density in those industries, along with the militancy of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union.

Organizing the Pick-It Line

In 2019, a group of unions — the Australian Workers Union (AWU), Transport Workers Union, and the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) — formed the Retail Supply Chain Alliance, aiming to improve standards in the sector. But the Alliance hasn’t practiced the same kind of militancy that delivered the goods for mining and construction workers.

Those unions are aligned with the Right of the Australian Labor Party, and their officials generally favor institutional mechanisms over militancy as a way to advance the interests of their members. They have signed an accord with supermarket giant Coles, aimed at ending hyper-exploitation in the agricultural sector. One of the Alliance’s goals is to establish a system that will require suppliers to supermarkets to have a union agreement.

They have also called for a Royal Commission into the sector, and applied to have horticulture pay requirements amended so as to impose a minimum wage floor for workers on piece rates. They’ve also recommended large funding increases for the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO), hoping to create a team of regionally based inspectors who can uncover abusive or illegal employment practices.

Some of these proposals are positive, but we should be wary of others, especially since the SDA union has a history of signing sweetheart deals with supermarkets to undercut legal minimums. In the long run, the only way to guarantee meaningful improvements in wages and conditions is to have a collectively organized and empowered labor force.

From that perspective, the record of the Retail Supply Chain Alliance starts to look less impressive. For over a century, the AWU has had a mandate to organize horticultural workers, yet the industry remains largely union-free, with exploitation and underpayment rampant.

Seeing the gap, the National Union of Workers stepped into the sector five years ago and began unionizing migrant farmworkers, sometimes working in partnership with unions from those workers’ home countries. The NUW since merged with United Voice to form the United Workers Union (UWU), giving it an expanded reach into the hospitality sector as well as other industries.

Tomatoes of Wrath

UWU began by organizing migrant workers in tomato greenhouses and mixed vegetable farms. By banding together and threatening to highlight their mistreatment through the mainstream media, these workers won an overnight increase of $10 an hour.

In 2015, UWU organizers worked with Four Corners, a current-affairs program, to expose exploitation in the Coles and Woolworths supply chains. The exposé eventually led to new laws imposing licenses on labor-hire providers — an important reform, since labor-hire contractors are often the frontline facilitators of hyper-exploitation.

Despite the difficulties created by COVID-19, UWU continued to recruit SWP workers to the union in 2020 and bolster their rights. In the course of this work, UWU organizers and members have run up against legal barriers, such as the requirement that they give twenty-four hours’ notice before conducting workplace inspections. This gives employers the opportunity to conceal undocumented workers and practices that are tantamount to modern slavery.

The differences between UWU and the Retail Supply Chain Alliance unions aren’t just tactical. Although the AWU has supported the Seasonal Worker Program, its leaders want to abolish the Working Holiday Maker visa category. They have also opposed a recently proposed visa amnesty for undocumented workers, arguing that it would undermine efforts to raise wages and attract Australian workers to the sector if undocumented workers received a path to a work visa.

UWU, on the other hand, is in favor of the amnesty, and has worked alongside undocumented workers to share their stories and struggle. As UWU organizer Tim Nelthorpe argues:

Any union that’s serious about organizing the horticulture industry knows that if you ignore undocumented workers and their struggle, you can’t organize the industry. We have Australian members working in the industry, but it’s in their interests for the union to organize undocumented workers alongside them.

There may be a long way to go before horticulture is a well-paid line of work that is free of naked exploitation. But the disruption created by COVID-19 is also an opportunity for reform. The Australian government won’t lead the way, preferring to carp about work-shy locals. Meanwhile, horticultural workers and their unions are hard at work extracting the rotten core of Australian horticulture.