Fruit pickers are facing ‘outrageous’ exploitation, according to a new report – and it could be why the government’s $6,000 bonus scheme is falling flat

Australian fruit pickers, faced with exploitation, are hard to find. (Auscape, Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
  • The federal government program aimed at attracting Australian workers to pick fruit in regional Australia is floundering, as it is revealed just 148 Australians have signed up in its first month, despite up to $6,000 being up for grabs.
  • It comes as farmers face the prospect of fruit being left to rot on the vine this season, with an estimated 30,000 workers required.
  • The unions have meanwhile called for a royal commission into the industry, releasing a report alleging widespread exploitation of workers and wage theft.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

When backpackers and those on working holiday visas began disappearing from Australian shores this year, so did swathes of the country’s seasonal workforce.

Missing as many as 30,000 workers, some farmers may have little choice but to walk away from millions of dollars worth of crops this season.

Australians it appears are less than enthused by the idea of doing the work, and it shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise.

A new report out on Friday, commissioned by a handful of Australia’s unions, found that some blueberry pickers in Coffs Harbour were pocketing as little as $3 an hour, a fraction of the $24 promised by the minimum award.

Others described arrangements that saw them forced to pay their employer for accomodation, food, transport, and even equipment, reducing their earnings further.

“This shocking new report can be added to the mountain of research indicating that Australian farms have become a hotbed of wage theft, exploitation, and worker abuse,” Australian Workers’ Union national secretary Daniel Walton said.

“It’s not just Coffs Harbour either – pick a spot on the map, and you will find outrageous exploitation.”

While that’s not to say there aren’t agricultural operations that work in good faith, the tarnished reputation of some within the industry is clearly enough to make most Australians think twice.

Natalie Trigwell lost her home in the bushfires in the Northern Rivers earlier this year, and drove south to Coffs Harbour to find work.

“I packed everything in the camper-van and headed off berry picking, just out of sheer desperation. I went down there and found that I was earning $15-20 per day” she said, as part of the report.

It’s no wonder then that Australians are hardly packing up their lives and shipping out to farms, despite the Australian federal government’s best efforts.

The government’s plan to find local labour has flopped so far

The Morrison government put up $17.4 million in its October Federal Budget to help cover the cost of relocating to regional areas where the work is to be done.

Under the aptly-named ‘Relocation Assistance to Find a Job’ program, Australians could be reimbursed up to $6,000 for stays of six weeks or longer.

However, the latest figures from the Department of Employment provided to the ABC, show just 148 people have taken up the government’s offer in the first month — not even 0.01% of what is required nationwide — despite there being one million Australians currently looking for work.

Faced with the prospect that government incentives alone weren’t going to fix the labour shortfall, Agricultural Minister David Littleproud has indicated that state governments would need to fly in Pacific Islander workers.

“The only impediment are the states,” Mr Littleproud told ABC News this week. “They have to work with industry to bring people in, and making sure they have the quarantine plans, because they wanted to own it.”

But Littleproud also rejected the notion that the federal government would cover their quarantine costs.

Tasmania has managed the challenge better than other states, choosing to cover quarantine costs and let farmers and workers foot the bill for plane tickets.

Calls for a royal commission

But with exploitation remaining rife, the unions say the industry needs reform, not just migration.

With illegality having become part of the system, the UWU says it’s time for a royal commission to fix it.

“By turning a blind eye, the government has created a system of rules and structures that rewards labour abusers and punishes those operators doing the right thing,” Walton said.

“It doesn’t need to be this way… Australia needs to decide if we want to take the ethical, high-productivity route or the unethical, labour exploitation route.”

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