Australian farmers need to stop hiring international backpackers to harvest their crops and instead employ young people in regional and rural areas, according to several unions.
The Australian Workers Union, the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association and the Transport Workers Union have formed an alliance, calling for an urgent end to the working holidaymaker visa.
In a submission to a federal review of the farm workforce, the Retail Supply Chain Alliance claimed the backpacker program was rife with exploitation and called for more Australians to work on farms as well as an expansion of the seasonal worker program.
It comes days after industry body the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance (AFPA) told a parliamentary inquiry that removing working holidaymakers would cost the economy $13 billion and could drive up the price of fresh fruit and vegetables by as much as 60 per cent.
AFPA estimated almost 130,000 people on the working holidaymaker visa were typically employed across the sector.
But backpacker numbers have fallen by 50,000 since Australia introduced restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 earlier this year.
AWU national secretary Daniel Walton said the pandemic had shown the horticulture industry’s over-reliance on overseas workers at a time when regional unemployment was “through the roof”.
“Farmers need to attract Australians back into the horticulture workforce,” he said.
The concept that Australians don’t want this work isn’t just wrong, it’s offensive. All work is dignified and should be respected.”
Mr Walton said if farmers “started paying people decent wages, there’s a willing workforce already out there in rural and remote Australia”.
The National Farmers Federation has argued there are not enough workers in Australia to fulfil the industry’s needs, and COVID-19 bans on inbound travel, and state border closures, are likely to compound the problem.
The NFF last month launched a job site to try to connect Australians looking for work with farmers, claiming job seekers “may be surprised about how much they can earn in agriculture and horticulture, in some cases, up to $1000 per week”.
But the unions claimed “the evidence for systemic and widespread exploitation in Australia’s horticulture sector is empirical”, and referred to several recent legal proceedings involving backpackers employed on farms.
“There are farmers who are doing the right thing by their employees; if they can pay a fair wage and treat their workers with respect, why can’t everyone?” Mr Walton said.
Call to expand seasonal worker program
The Retail Supply Chain Alliance also used its submission to endorse broadening the seasonal worker program, which allows workers from Pacific nations to work on Australian farms.
It called for more countries to be involved in the SWP and for it to provide a pathway to citizenship.
The federal government recently approved a pilot for workers from Vanuatu, under the SWP, to enter Australia to work on mango farms.
It followed remarks by Agriculture Minister David Littleproud who said Australian workers had a “real aversion” to go and pick fruit.
In April, the government extended visas so people on the working holidaymaker and seasonal worker programs could remain in Australia.
Australia’s unemployment rate is 7.4 per cent, its highest level in 20 years.