The labour shortages and exploitation we are seeing today need to be addressed by our new government
The opportunity to make a better life for oneself in Australia is seized by many, often irrespective of their grasp on the culture, the English language, or most notably their rights as workers.
The excitement felt on arrival dissolves if these workers find themselves in situations of gross mistreatment and conditions constituting modern slavery – a far too common occurrence. Exploitation of foreign workers is happening in all industries across Australia today, with labour shortages in the agriculture sector providing immense vulnerability.
Australian farmers require many workers to pick, pack, sort and post their produce resulting in an influx of temporary visa workers during the summer. The inconsistent, seasonal nature of horticulture work alongside the remote locations means it is not suited to all Australians, therefore farmers rely on this external workforce. Despite this, farmers are still facing serious worker shortages and fear the financial loss of crops being left unharvested. In desperation this is where farmers may turn to undocumented or illegal labourers in order to fulfil demands. Yet without proper documentation or permission to work, these individuals have minimal protections from growers or more often rogue labour hire operators taking advantage of them.
In an earlier blog post, Sam drew attention to the horrendous conditions foreign workers have experienced, from underpayment for demanding labour to passport confiscation and threats.
Fortunately the wheel is rolling on stamping out these situations. The National Farming Federation (NFF) backed by many aussie farmers are calling on the government to provide a sustainable long-term solution to the labour shortage by way of a specific agriculture visa for migrants, which will in turn provide greater monitoring of employers.
Currently the two types of worker visas are Working holidaymaker visas, generally attained by backpackers, and Seasonal Worker Programme visas which is a government run labour mobility scheme that brings in workers from the pacific islands and Timor-Leste. Yet both are criticised for their inadequacy and have seen workers treated well under our national recognised health and safety standards or receive inadequate pay.
Farmers have complained about the complexity and frustration of having to retrain new workers every year due to no staff consistency. In April 2017 the Government introduced the Temporary Skills Shortage (TSS) Visa which commenced in March 2018. This extended the list of skilled occupations foreign workers are eligible to apply for on a four-year visa, yet it does not cover unskilled labour such as fruit picking despite the high demand. Hence the consensus this extension was not enough and is not what farmers were wanting – they want an ag visa.
What would this change mean for modern slavery in Australian Farming? Ensuring all workers enter Australia by legal and legitimate means would minimise unethical practices by farmers. The NFF want a key feature of the Agriculture visa to be that only growers meeting authorized conditions to have access to the program. Furthermore they want to safeguard the workers through education on their rights and where to turn for support to ensure they are not bullied into silence regarding oppressive treatment.
Throughout the election neither major party had committed to the proposal and at present views in the Coalition are divided, but when the matter comes to the table with the push from Australians hopefully the support can be harnessed. Bureaucratically there is some push back from pacific islander officials not wanting to see the seasonal workers program sidelined, but hopefully this deterrence can be navigated as there is no intention to end that program, just expand the migrant worker intake effectively. The labour shortages and exploitation we are seeing today need to be addressed by our new government. Updating the current system is a viable way forward that with continuing petition we will hopefully see promised in the not too distant future.