Slaving away

That’s the title of a Four Corners program on working conditions in Australia’s fresh food industry.

A union official contends:

    “Almost every fresh product that you pick up… will have passed through the hands of workers who have been fundamentally exploited.”

The exploitation includes brutal working hours, degrading living conditions, the massive underpayment of wages, and sexual harassment and assault.

According to this article foreshadowing the program the food ends up in Woolworths, Coles, Aldi, IGA, Costco and fast food outlets KFC, Red Rooster and Subway.

    Migrant workers from Asia and Europe are being routinely abused, harassed and assaulted at work, the Four Corners investigation found. Women are also being targeted sexually, with women being propositioned for sex and asked to perform sexual favours in exchange for visas.

    How does the fresh food workforce operate in Australia and who are the major parties involved?

    The exploitation is widespread and in some cases involves organised syndicates.

    The shocking forms of exploitation are all accompanied by the gross underpayment of wages, with potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in stolen pay going missing every year.

    A scam is being run by unscrupulous labour hire contractors – dodgy middle men who sell groups of cut-price migrant workers to farms and factories producing fresh food across the country.

    The migrant workers enter Australia legally on 417 working holiday visas, which were designed as a cultural exchange program.

    The visa allows migrant workers to travel and work for up to six months in one location, performing low-skilled jobs such as fruit and vegetable picking or working in meat and poultry factories in regional locations and some cities.

Federal Liberal Member for Hinkler, around Bundaberg, Keith Pitt, says Australia’s reputation has already been damaged.

The supermarkets have been fingered for shirking responsibility by passing accountability back to the suppliers and farmers. Indeed:

    SA Potatoes, one of the largest potato suppliers in Australia, recently lost supply contracts to supermarkets, which opted to go for cheaper competitors using exploited migrant workers.

Thom Mitchell at New Matilda says that widespread abuse was found in the program in Queensland, Victoria and South Australia. Also:

    In March, the Abbott government voted against a broad-ranging senate inquiry into the treatment and impact of migrant workers which the Assistant Minister for Immigration, Michaelia Cash, dismissed as “politically motivated”.

    Cash said the government would not support the motion, jointly passed with Greens and Labor backing, because it had been established by “those who are fundamentally opposed to the 457 skilled migration program”, a separate visa class for skilled short-term workers which the inquiry will also examine.

    But Four Corners’ investigation reveals the grim reality of how labour hire contract businesses systematically abuse existing short-term temporary working visa arrangements, all of which are covered by the inquiry’s terms of reference.

This inquiry, initiated by the Greens, is going ahead chaired by Labor Senator Sue Lines. It will also look at whether monitoring and enforcement of the working visa programs are adequate.

Mitchell says:

    some of the companies featured in the Four Corners story have long been within the sights of the industrial relations watchdog, and other parts of the media too.

    One company, Covino Farms, has been issued more than 30 improvement notices for breaches of workplace health and safety laws, as well as being fined for a number of environmental breaches.

    Like most of the workplaces featured in the program, Covino Farms supplies major supermarkets.

    Despite the company’s shonky track record, the Napthine government provided Covino Farms with a $1.5 million grant in late 2013, a move criticised by the Victorian Labor opposition.

The Napthine government had been warned about these breaches. The Victorian Andrews government plans to establish an inquiry “into labour hire, sham contracting and the unethical treatment of employees”.

Simon Lauder, reporting for The World Today, said the exploitation seemed to be an open secret. Employment market analyst at Randstad, Steve Shepherd, told Lauder that shonky labour hire firms in Australia are paying Asian recruiters up to two or three months salary. Poor people in Asia borrow money and pay to come in what is in effect a form of human trafficking. This aspect had not been covered by Four Corners.

I didn’t see the Four Corners report and have no sense of how widespread the problem is. However, in February, the Fair Work Ombudsman told a Senate estimates hearing there’d been a 40 per cent jump in complaints from workers.

Competition is good, we are always told, and will yield the lowest prices. The question remains, at what cost?

3 thoughts on “Slaving away”

  1. Steinbeck published “The Grapes of Wrath” 76 years ago in 1939.
    The more things change the more they stay the same.

  2. I saw the 4 Corners program and the problem does appear to be widespread. It was notable that the labour contractors preferred Asian women over Europeans presumably because the former are more docile and easily manipulated.

    Even in the Asian immigrant community with which I am familiar, pay rates as low as $8 an hour are common and often workers are not paid at all for an unspecified period of time that can stretch to a couple of months. A Chinese friend of mine is still owed several thousand dollars in back wages that she will almost certainly not be getting.

  3. Employment market analyst at Randstad, Steve Shepherd, told Lauder that shonky labour hire firms in Australia are paying Asian recruiters up to two or three months salary. Poor people in Asia borrow money and pay to come in what is in effect a form of human trafficking.

    Once you let overseas recruiters recruit overseas it is a bit hard to control.

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