Australia relies heavily on migrant workers to keep its horticultural sector running. But can migrant workers rely on Australia to protect them from exploitation? In a recent article, ABC explores the experiences of farm workers, as well as the government’s response.
Undocumented migrants at highest risk
The most vulnerable workers on Australia’s farms are undocumented migrants, according to migration law expert Joanna Howe.
[Howe] said most undocumented workers have paid a hefty fee to a “dodgy” migration agent to organise their visa and what they’re promised will be a well-paying job – only to arrive and discover they’re on a tourist visa with no right to work.
They will then typically meet an unscrupulous labour hire contractor who takes them to the regions, where they are forced to work on farms to repay their debt.
“The farmer deals with the contractor. The contractor gets a lump sum,” Ms Howe said.
“The farmer might even think that he or she is paying the right amount for that group of workers, but the contractor takes a lot and the workers get very little.
Testimonies from anonymous workers reveal the extent of their vulnerability. For example, one Malaysian man was told he would earn over AUD 300 (around USD 220) per day picking fruit. However, when he arrived in Australia, he found he could only earn around AUD 30 (USD 22) per day for very strenuous work. “The first week, I wanted to cry,” he told ABC.
Another woman spoke of the experiences of her undocumented friends. She said they often faced verbal and physical abuse, with many female workers facing sexual harassment. “They can’t answer back because they’re so scared,” she said.
Government schemes fail to protect workers
Although undocumented workers are likely the most unprotected group, exploitation is also rife within regulated schemes, like the Seasonal Worker Program. Howe says, “There really are some horrible examples of abuse in that program – unlawful deductions, exorbitant prices for accommodation, wage theft.”
Fraudsters take advantage of the tough conditions in these jobs, promising workers jobs outside the system with significantly better conditions. After leaving their current employer, workers discover that the offer was a lie. Having absconded from the government program, they find themselves at the mercy of the new employer.
How might the government address this exploitation?
Rights organizations are calling on the government to take action to increase protections for migrant farm workers. Meanwhile, the government is also facing pressure to respond to the sector’s labor shortage. Travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic have stopped the usual flow of workers, exacerbating the situation further.
The federal government’s National Agricultural Workforce Strategy presents two approaches to address these challenges. The first is to take action against exploitative labor hire contractors with the launch of a national licensing program. The second is to introduce a one-off amnesty for undocumented workers, granting them the appropriate visa.
The government has also proposed new legislation which would criminalize taking advantage of a person’s migration status to exploit them at work. However, it remains to be seen whether or not these proposals will be approved.