Published: 30/09/2021
Category: On The Job
Published: 30/09/2021
Category: On The Job

How would you go taking home $25 a day doing a backbreaking job on the land?

It sounds like something out of the 19th century, but that is the sort of thing that is set to continue to happen on Australia’s farms.

“That’s what modern slavery looks like in Australia,” according to Shane Roulstone, the National Agriculture Organiser with the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU).

In June this year, the Government announced it was revamping Australia’s visa arrangement for farmworkers, creating what it called a new ASEAN visa for residents of 10 Southeast Asian countries to work on Australian farms.

The deal, brokered in conjunction with the British free trade deal that was announced at the same time, also relieved British backpackers from the much loathed “88-Day” mandatory farm work commitment which was required to extend their visas.

The new ASEAN Visa was an attempt to compartmentalise Australian agriculture’s addiction to labour exploitation to poorer workers from our near neighbours.

At the time, the Government said nothing and has done even less about systemic abuse of migrant workers on Australian farms, something that has been highlighted in numerous reports and testimonies from Australian unions.

Now it seems Scott Morrison is about to ditch the ASEAN Visa plan altogether in favour of a new “Agriculture Visa” that has no restrictions on where workers can come from, where in Australia they can work or how many visas will be made available.

Having expanded the scope of the visa to also cover the fisheries, forestry and the meatworks industries, the Morrison Government is declaring open season on foreign worker exploitation all over again.

“This visa will create a second-class workforce in the agriculture, fisheries, forestry and meatworks sectors who will have none of the protections or rights that all Australian workers should be able to rely on,” according to the President of the ACTU Michele O’Neil.

Shane Roulstone knows the terrain of the agriculture visa system better than most. He is alarmed that the Government has been silent on the detail of the new visa system, the details of which have only been revealed inadvertently in a fact sheet emanating from the Department of Home Affairs.

“The real crux of the matter centres around the vulnerability of migrant workers who can be easily exploited, and the need for a fit and proper person test for those employers in an industry where exploitation is the norm.

“We have to take reasonable steps to protect migrant workers and that means ensuring that farmers or labour hire companies employing migrant workers who are fit and proper people. Currently, the Government’s not standing up and saying we’re going to apply that test”, Roulston told On the Job.

The AWU along with other unions such as United Workers Union (UWU) and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) have been waging a long campaign to end migrant worker exploitation in Australian agriculture and other industries.

The exploitation is often systemic, and for some workers can stretch on for years.

Steve McCartney is the State Secretary of the AMWU in Western Australia. He told On the Job about one case his union is dealing with in the southwest of the state in the town of Harvey.

“We’ve got some Filipino workers here in Harvey that have been here for 11 years who are on temporary visas and trying to get permanent residency. Here’s an example of a group of workers who have been pushing the company and the Government to try and get residency for over a decade,” McCartney explained.

“They have families with kids here and they’re still living on a knife edge. If we were serious about fixing this problem, those workers would have residency.

 “We should be targeting migrants with the rights skills instead of this temporary visa set up and the exploitation that comes along with it.”

Shane Roulstone fears that the failure to enact protections for migrant visa workers is set to drive decent employers out of the sector, leaving workers open to further abuse.

“Good farmers succeeding in the industry will be destroyed by this. The good farmers who are fit and proper people won’t be able to compete against all the dodgy farmers and labour hire companies who won’t pay award rates and who will charge an excessive amount in accommodation and transport costs.

“If you’re going to introduce [migrant worker visas] the responsibility is on the Government to ensure that the workers that come over on those visas aren’t exploited.”

Michele O’Neil is in no doubt in whose interest the Agriculture System will serve.

“This program is simply about giving big business a way to slash wages by exploiting vulnerable migrant workers. Once again, the Morrison Government has caved to business interests and abandoned working people,” said O’Neil.

“This visa represents an enormous step back for workers’ rights. Agriculture Minister David Littleproud describes it as ‘the biggest structural change to the agriculture workforce in our nation’s history’.

“Australian workers should be able to expect that historic workforce changes reinforce and advance their rights, not remove them.”

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Exploitation Nation – how Australia’s farms are exploiting migrant workers

Exploitation Nation – how Australia’s farms are exploiting migrant workers