Exploitation of migrants is rampant in the agricultural sector, a farm workers’ union warns, just weeks after the UN praised Australia for taking a leading stance on anti-slavery laws.
The National Union of Workers (NUW) has launched an investigation into exploitation in Australia’s fruit picking industry where some foreign farm workers are enduring “slave-like conditions” and receiving wages as low as $8 a day.
“It’s kind of like the secret chain of the Australian workforce,” NUW National President Caterina Cinanni told Government News. “We have a huge number of workers trapped in slave-like conditions in Australia,” she said. “We know that the exploitation is deep, wide and systematic.”
Fiona Reynolds, chair of the UN Financial Sector Commission on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking, earlier this month told Government News that Australia’s anti-slavery laws set a global benchmark, but warned labor law reform was needed to address slavery risks in agriculture.
“The Modern Slavery Act in Australia won’t solve all of our problems, we also have to look at labour laws, migrants that come in on different visa arrangements, and labour hire plans,” she said.
Fellow Commissioner Anita Ramasastry, of the University of Washington Law School of Law, who sits on the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, also warned Australia’s growing migrant population is vulnerable to exploitation on farms.
Fined for underpaying workers
It comes as the NSW Fair Work Ombudsman announced on Wednesday that a Brisbane based labour hire company had been ordered to pay $51,000 to 19 Vanuatu nationals who had been employed as tomato-pickers at a farm near Shepparton.
Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said Agri-Labour Australia had failed to correctly compensate the workers, who were employed under the seasonal worker program between December 2017 and last April.
Fair work inspectors found the company was paying workers a piecework rate based on the amount picked by the team, rather than the individual, in breach of both the company’s enterprise agreement and piecework agreements.
Agri-Labour admitted it had not kept records of hours worked and had incorrectly deducted money for wet weather gear.
Ms Cinanni says migrant workers are the “invisible workforce” in Australia, packing produce in “highly exploitative” working conditions often facing underpayment, overworking, harassment, assault and threats of deportation.
Migrants “invariably” work in the agricultural sector and those on temporary and permanent visas, as well as undocumented immigrants, were most vulnerable to exploitation, she said.
Ms Cinanni has visited hundreds of farms across Australia and only a “handful” pay minimum wage, she says, often using a rate based on the quantity of fruit to avoid paying hourly rates.
“For a lot of (workers) they’re trapped in really exploitative labour hire contractor arrangements … paid in cash, trapped in the black economy and paid in piecework or below minimum wage. We’ve seen wages at $8 or $12 an hour, far below the minimum wage,” she said.
Many migrants are also “trapped in a broken visa system,” she says, with some farms blackmailing workers with threats of visa revocations if they report their work conditions to authorities.
Mid last year a three-year investigation from the FWO found some foreign workers in Australian farms are “bonded like slaves” to sham labour hire contractors.
The scale of exploitation in the sector has prompted the union to undertake a survey canvassing farm worker’s working conditions, the findings of which are due in a few months.
Carolyn Liaw, a researcher with Anti-Slavery Australia, a legal research centre offering free advice to victims of slavery, is also worried about the vulnerability of migrants working in agriculture to exploitation.
“We do know that the agricultural sector is problematic in terms of labor exploitation more generally,” she said.
While it is difficult to quantify how many cases veer into the extreme end of labor exploitation because of its criminal nature, Ms Liaw says she has come across a number of cases in the agricultural sector.
One of her clients, who has been made anonymous to protect his identity, was forced to undertake gruelling and dangerous work exposing him to hazardous chemicals, for years working from 5 am to midnight.
Farm worker “exploited,” underpaid and overworked
British IT worker Haider Malik, 30, spent three months working as a fruit picker in Australia while backpacking. He says exploitation of backpackers was “very prevalent” at the farms he worked at and some were notorious for underpaying.
Mr Malik, who is currently living in Australia on a temporary visa, said he often worked overtime without being paid, seldom received a minimum wage and paid up to $240 in rent for a four-person share bedroom.
Payslips provided by Mr Malik reveal he was paid $14.50 for around two and a half hours picking cherry tomatoes, and on another occasion he was paid around $53 for about six hours work.
Workers with language barriers were even more vulnerable to underpayment, overtime and poor working conditions, he says.
“There is a lot of exploitation of far-east Asians in these places,” he said.
Mr Malik says his experience has motivated him to take action to reduce exploitation in the farm sector and he is developing an app to help farm workers log their hours and store the data.
Labor law shake-up needed
The FWO’s Harvest Trail Inquiry Report released last November looked at seasonal fruit and vegetable harvesting involving thousands of businesses.
As part of the inquiry, inspectors investigated 444 growers and 194 labour hire contractors connected with the harvesting of various crops including citrus, grapes, strawberries, cherries, mushrooms, apples and tomatoes.
It found widespread non-compliance with workplace laws, including deliberate underpayments, falsification of records and unauthorised deductions, and $1 million of unpaid wages for 2,500 workers.
The inquiry found that almost 70 per cent of harvest trail businesses employed visa holders, with working holiday subclass 417 visa holders the most common.
The FWO found that more than a third of employers were paying piece rates or a combination of piece and hourly rates. While this is acceptable under horticultural awards, more than 100 employers had either no written piecework agreement or an invalid agreement.
Broad reforms are needed to tackle the exploitation of migrant workers, Ms Cinanni says, including tougher safeguards for visa holders and better wages, especially in the agricultural sector.
“We have been openly and actively campaigning on the idea of visa reform and the need for protection of workers on visas … We also have such a big pool of undocumented workers so there needs to be specific reform around that group currently trapped in broken visa systems,” she said.
Australia’s new anti-slavery laws would not themselves protect foreign workers from exploitative conditions, Commissioner Reynolds told Government News and targeted labor law reform was needed.
Protection for migrant workers
The federal government says migrants are subject to the same basic rights and protections as all other Australians, including the ability to have claims of underpayment and exploitation investigated.
A taskforce into migrant workers released in March had made a number of recommendations to improve workplace protections for migrants, a spokesperson for the Department of Jobs and Small Business told Government News.
A spokesperson from the Australian Border Force acknowledged that foreign workers and unlawful non-citizens are particularly vulnerable to slavery and slavery-like practices and said the ABF is continuing to work with partner agencies to target foreign work exploitation.
The spokesperson also pointed to recent law reforms providing greater protections for workers on visas, including abolishing the subclass 457 visa and putting in place new sanctions against sponsors who don’t comply with sponsorship rules.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison in March announced a new plan requiring skilled workers to live in regional Australia for three years before they can apply for permanent residency.
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