Time for fair food movement to speak up on farm labour
Enjoying your strawberrries, blueberries and fresh veges? That’s good. Now, as you munch them, spare a thought for the cheap labour which picked them and for the Australians who are pushed out of farm work.
THE SO-CALLED FAIR FOOD MOVEMENT has done well in promoting the buying of food that is price-fair to farmers and nutrition-fair to eaters. What is conspicuously missing from this fairness duopoly is fairness to farm workers.
But, let’s be fair to the movement: some in the movement have called for farm labour reform. At the same time, is it also fair to ask whether the reality of it being a largely-farmer-led movement has also led to it largely ignoring pay and conditions for Australian farm workers and farmer-preference for cheap foreign workers?
Reliance on cheap foreign workers comes back to bite farmers
The commercial horticulture industry relies on cheap foreign labour. That includes Tasmania’s berry and fruit harvest as well as harvests on the mainland. The workers are mainly young, both male and female. A Tasmanian told me they are people who cannot get a job in their home countries. I have no idea of whether that is true or whether they are just young people seeking life experience and a bit of adventure.
The conditions of farm labour has been an issue simmering for years, including in Tasmania. Allegations of exploitation of foreign workers and how pay fails to adequately compensate Australian workers in view of the hours, the physical difficulty of the work and travel and accommodation costs associated with it discourages Australians applying for the work have appeared with regularity in media reports.
It turns out that Australians are applying for farm work, however a report that farmers are refusing to employ Australians and are willing to employ only foreign labour on their farms recently appeared in The New Daily. It puts the lie to allegations that Australians are too lazy to do hard work like fruit and vegetable picking. Here’s the story:
1500 Australians registered for farm work — not one of them got a job
A recruitment company set up at the start of the pandemic to find Australians work on farms has found it ‘impossible’…
The article reports that:
“A recruitment company set up at the start of the pandemic to find Australians work on farms has found it ‘impossible’ to get locals jobs, despite the industry crying out for boots on the ground.
“The New Daily can also reveal that many labour-hire companies for the agricultural sector are advertising positions exclusively for backpackers, leaving unemployed Australians, who say they’re happy to work for fair pay, out in the cold.
“AgriAus had over 1500 applicants for farm work but were unable to secure even one of them a job due to farmers’ preference for foreign workers, the firm’s co-founder told The New Daily.
“…as soon as employers heard the job seekers were Australian citizens all interest died. What we’ve been finding is the moment you say you want to get an Aussie a job, the farmer doesn’t want to listen,” he said.
“Currently, labour-hire companies across the country are advertising for positions, some of them specifically stating they will only employ backpackers.
‘Working holidaymaker only’ several job ads say, while others specify that candidates ‘must have a WHV visa’ to apply.
United Workers Union farms director Jannette Armstrong said conditions across the horticulture industry remained poor.”
The Union has called for a cleaning-up of the horticulture industry.
Reporting the attitude of farmers towards employing Australians, the article quotes: “We did a bit of digging around why, and farmers said ‘one, they’re lazy’, and ‘two, we have to pay them’.
The New Daily has followed the controversy and highlighted the agriculture industry’s shortcomings:
Overseas workers shockingly exploited, report reveals
International students and backpackers are being exploited by Australian employers on a shocking scale — and it is not…
‘A rip-off rort’: Calls to clean up fruit picking industry grow
The government and peak farming body have been left scrambling to find ways to help unemployed Australians land fruit…
The reality is that foreign workers are temporary residents without the family and financial commitments of Australian workers. It is this that makes them different, employment-wise, to Australians and that makes them attractive to cheap-labour farmers.
Now, with the pandemic having shut down international travel, most of them have gone and will not be coming back anytime soon. Now, the anticipated shortfall of 26,000 workers presents the horticulture industry with a problem of its own making because of its reliance on cheap foreign labour. Their own problem comes home to roost in the farmers’ fields.
Meeting the workers
Having been on the road for some time until the start of the pandemic provided the opportunity, at campgrounds, to meet foreign farm workers on working visas. They are good people for the most part, even those who one campground management asked to stop their late-night partying because other campers complained about the noise. In some cases they crowd out Australian and foreign travellers from camp kitchens, completely taking them over. I don’t know how this goes down among travellers, but finding access to the kitchen stove and sink could be a challenge at times.
The foreign visa-workers set off early in the morning to work farms in the area and return after a hard day in the fields to make something to eat, then repeat next day irrespective of whether the weather is hot or whether a cold south-westerly is blowing across Tasmanian berry farms. I’m not sure the experience would encourage many of them to take up a farming career.
It’s a deduction, I know, however I base it on observation during our road trip. It is this: foreign visa farm workers form a type of low-paid social and workplace subclass harvesting the nation’s fruit and vegetable supply.
Australians who work as they travel for long periods seem to often find work in higher-paying roles rather than in primary industry. I know this is a sweeping statement and it is no putdown of foreign workers who are directed to the farm fields as a requirement of their visas. For anyone working the harvests or other types of farm work, however, it is a rural version of the gig economy.
Economic constraints of a low-wage industry
Farm economics is an economically constrained environment. Farming is a sometimes chancy profession with harvests subject to weather. Remember the banana shortage a few years ago when Queensland banana plantations were trashed by a cyclone?
There’s the supermarket industry’s limited willingness to pay for produce, the limited ability and willingness to pay fair wages by farmers, and the limited willingness to pay for farm produce by eaters. All of this conspires to create a regime of hard work and low wages for farm workers. Now, in addition, comes the unwillingness of farmers to employ their fellow-countryfolk in favour of cheap foreign labour.
Would employing Australians and paying better push up food retail prices to make food less-affordable at a time when the pandemic has forced large numbers out of work and so added to the existing pool of low-income Australians such as those who were looking for work and pensioners? If no solution to this conundrum can be found then we may be left with not only cheap farm labour and no place in Australian farm work for Australians but with our existing two-tier food system in which the salariat and the economically-better-off have their organic, locally grown food and the rest have the supermarket offerings which for many are Australia’s affordable foods.
In calling for a cleaning-up of the horticulture industry, the United Workers Union called upon the supermarkets to clean-up their supply chain.
“They are the biggest retailers of the fresh fruit and vegetables grown in Australia and must take greater responsibility for leading change, demanding, and ensuring responsible employment practices and humane treatment of workers in their supply chain.”
Fair food movement: time to speak up?
Farming is more than growing crops and tending animals. Farming is more than the bucolic and largely misleading images we see on pop-TV shows. Farming is more than those small family farms we see in videos from the fair food movement. Farming is caring for the land, something that regenerative agriculture advocates are working on. Farming is also human, in that it employs people who, like the farmer, have to earn enough so that they can have a decent life.
If farmers refuse to employ Australians and continue to rely on cheap foreigners when international travel resumes, or pressure government to allow in foreign farm workers during the pandemic, is farming really a viable industry?
There’s also the push by fair food advocates to buy locally produced food. Disregarding that coming from small, family-owned farms where the family does a large share of the work, when it comes from large farms, where is the incentive to buy local over imported when it has been produced by cheap foreign workers in Australia? Then, perhaps, imported food has also been produced by cheap, exploited farm workers.
The fair food movement has made heroes of farmers and put them on a pedestal. Now, it seems, that pedestal stands on dubious moral grounds. Is it time for the fair food movement to add fairness for farm workers and equal opportunity for Australian workers to its claims to fairness?
Is it time for the regenerative agriculture movement to regenerate fair pay and conditions for farm workers and start to employ their fellow Australians?
Is it time for government to do something about its working visas so cheap foreign labour is no longer pitted against Australian farm workers?