Australia is stereotyped on its rich farming history and the iconic hard-working farmers who have made Australia great. Farming is considered the back-bone of Australia and is integral to the notion of ‘Australia, the lucky country’. However, farm-labour has recently come under scrutiny, with many cases of modern slavery emerging. So is there a point where hard work enters the realm of tough labour conditions and thus becomes akin to slavery? The short answer is yes. It is known as forced labour.
Forced labour is any work or service which people are forced to do against their will, under threat of punishment. Almost all slavery practices contain some element of forced labour. Subtle examples of forced labour are manipulated debts, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.
Hard work and the image that it’s a pre-requisite of being Australian is outdated. It’s an image that belies what everybody would rather be doing: Not working. This label isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon, but it should be at retained at the expense of the vulnerable whilst land owners and the farmers expand their coffers and reap large profits. Forced farm labour conditions need to be addressed. Let’s explore the situation.
A recent parliamentary inquiry has heard that on a Federal Government backed program, three Tongan workers died and others are being forced to live and work grueling hours in pitiful conditions. Unventilated shipping containers, cramped caravans and access to one tap that produced green slimy water were just some of the circumstances imposed on them. These are not the working environment and living conditions for anybody. Even more startling that it could occur in a first-world country. Especially when considered in the light of advocacy around fair working conditions in Australia and the notion that all employees have protected rights at work. People are being exploited because they want a better life and the chance to live in a better country but are they getting value for their meager pay? Forced labour isn’t necessary.
…three Tongan workers died and others are being forced to live and work grueling hours in pitiful conditions.
The inquiry has also heard that close to $1 million was being skimmed by labour hire contractors every month off illegal Malaysian migrant workers. The workers were placed in sordid homes and charged up to $100 in rent.
The ABC has stated that ‘Labour contractors are getting away with blatant exploitation of workers because employment and immigration authorities are not taking enough notice of the problems as they attempt to develop a Modern Slavery Act here in Australia’
The Modern Slavery Act will be an essential piece of legislation in reducing modern slavery. However, in the interim, it is imperative that sight of the big picture is not lost. Raising awareness about the issue of forced labour is just the beginning.
What is being done?
A step in the right direction has been taken by the Victorian Farmers’ Federation with a representative apologising on behalf of farmers and calling for change:
“Honestly on behalf of the Australian farming industry, I’d actually like to apologise on behalf of those farmers who couldn’t think of anything worse than taking advantage of somebody else…”
Awareness needs to be raised and whilst an apology may be the beginning of change, more can always be done.
What can you do?
- If you are an employer, ensure that your workers are being treated appropriately and in a manner consistent with the law
- Employ people and use the applicable contracts and conditions that everybody is deserved of
- Cease the use of labour hire contractors
- Increase efficiency of your farming practices through areas other than using cheap labour
- Of course, Make Noise