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Retail Supply Chain Alliance calls for Royal Commission at Parliament House

March 1, 2021

Long, gruelling days in all weather, with no breaks, no days off, and all for a virtual pittance.

Welcome to the modern world of worker exploitation in Australia’s fruit and vegetable industry.

Report after report has highlighted the shocking and systemic culture of worker exploitation, wage theft and abuse in the industry, something that should be a national embarrassment.

The Retail Supply Chain Alliance held a forum in Canberra this week to discuss ways to fix the widespread and systemic exploitation of workers in Australia’s fruit and vegetable industry.

The RSCA is comprised of the three key industry supply chain unions, the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU), and the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA).

The RSCA’s unions cover every worker in the horticultural supply chain; from growing and packing through to shipping, storing, distributing and retailing. It is building a coalition to fix the fruit and vegetable sector, with unions, supermarkets, farm workers, ethical farm owners, and community groups.

Recent research conducted by the RSCA in partnership with the McKell Institute found that in some instance’s workers are paid as little as $3 an hour.

Australian Labor Party Leader, Anthony Albanese

 

One migrant worker and backpacker who has worked on farms in Coffs Harbour and elsewhere across Australia, described his experiences.

“The farms I’ve worked on in Coffs Harbour and elsewhere, you start at 6 in the morning and you pick fruit until 6 at night. In summer it is even longer. No real breaks. You only get days off when it rains. Saturday and Sunday mean nothing,” he says.

“On the farms I’ve worked at, there are usually just one toilet for many people, sometimes there are none. Everyone needs to go when they get up but the wait is too long for many. So, workers end up urinating and defecating next to and sometimes on the crops. People are dirty and smelly because there are not enough showers. We live together in steel boxes about eight square meters.

“People don’t know they have rights and even if they did they would be scared to exercise them. They get abused, physically and mentally, by the farm owners and labour hire companies. They get told they’ll get sent back home.

“Most workers get about $8 an hour on average, I’d say. I got better at making the right kind of noise so sometimes I’d get $10 an hour, but other times me and my workmates would only get  $3 an hour.

“What I have been through I would never think could happen in a civilised country like Australia.”

Dr Joanna Howe

 

Joanna Howe, an Associate Professor in Law at Adelaide University, says that unfortunately none of this is a surprise. Dr Howe has published multiple reports of long-term labour problems in the horticulture industry, and she says they are widespread.

“The level of exploitation in the Australian horticulture industry is not the exception to the rule,” Dr Howe says. “It’s the business model used by most farm employers and labour-hire companies.”

Farmer Peter Bloomhall raised eyebrows recently with reports of successful harvests on his South Queensland farm, despite widespread claims of critical labour shortages caused by the flow on from COVID-19.

Mr Bloomhall says the solution to farm labour shortages is not rocket science and has seen his business thrive.

“Treat people with basic respect and be willing to be flexible,  I pay my workers a decent wage, with the guaranteed hourly award rate plus bonuses on top, he says. “I don’t have any major problems getting workers” Workers know who the good employers are and as you would expect they want to work for good employers”

AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton

Daniel Walton, AWU National Secretary, says successive governments have repeatedly avoided addressing farm-worker exploitation and labour supply problems.

“They have done nothing to address the real issues around exploitation and just importing more vulnerable overseas workers won’t fix it,” Mr Walton says. “If you pay decent wages people will want to pursue careers in the horticultural and agricultural industry, as they should.”

TWU National Secretary Michael Kaine

TWU National Secretary Michael Kaine says his union has battled worker exploitation before and is prepared to do it again, this time in the farm sector.

“The TWU has a long history of using supply-chain approaches to work with all stakeholders to end worker exploitation,” Mr Kaine says. “The same approach used in the horticulture industry should go a long way to fixing the problem.”

SDA National Secretary, Gerard Dwyer

SDA National Secretary Gerard Dwyer says the economic benefits are no brainers, and will flow directly to hard-hit regional communities.

“Paying farm workers a reasonable wage will mean money will flow into regional towns,” Mr Dwyer says. “It will boost the economy and jobs in regional communities, money these areas desperately need.”

Sign the petition and support our campaign for a Royal Commission into our broken farming sector.

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