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Fruit picking worker exploitation exposes the human cost of low prices

Workers sort and pack strawberries at the Chambers Flat Strawberry Farm in Chambers Flat, Queensland, Monday, November 5, 2018. Prime Minister Scott Morrison today announced $1.5 million for the Fair Farms Initiative and reforms to the Seasonal Work Program. (AAP Image/Tim Marsden) NO ARCHIVING

A new campaign from the Australian Worker’s Union has put a spotlight on blatant exploitation within the fruit picking industry and places pressure on the National Farmers Federation and supermarket duolopy to push back against these practices.

Journalist for The Guardian Australia, Ben Butler spoke with On the Job with Francis Leach & Sally Rugg to give listeners some valuable insights into the issue. He explained how the current horticultural award leaves workers vulnerable to exploitation saying, “In piecework, you get paid by how much you pick, so in fruit picking, it’s basically by the kilo at a rate set by the employer and as a result of that effective wages can be incredibly low”.

“According to some research done for the AWU a week or so ago, worker’s get paid as little as $3 an hour, so it is rife with exploitation in this industry.”

On top of the flawed horticultural award, workers are further vulnerable to these practices because of insecure visa statuses and a lack of support networks. Butler explained, “Once upon a time, Australian fruit was picked largely by permanent residents but over time, the industries relied more and more on overseas labour.

“Those people have lacked the kind of connections that help people make effective complaints and get their case heard inside the Australian community.

“They’re really at the mercy of labour hirer firms and farmers.”

While unions are pushing to underpin piece work with a minimum wage, consumers are left with few options to support the workers. “I think it’s unfair to expect consumers to try and exercise choice when there is no visible mechanism for them to do so”, Butler said.

“We can’t know how our strawberries were picked, how those people were paid.

“What matters is that you buy it from Coles and Woolies.

“They’ve copped increasing damage by being held accountable for the abuses that are occurring in their supply chain.

“The question is, how addicted are they to being able to offer what is kind of almost a loss leader in fruit and vegetables to get people through the door, versus how much they value their good name and Australian community.”

Listen to the full interview with Ben Butler and make your working life better by subscribing to the new podcast On the Job with Francis Leach & Sally Rugg.

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