News ‘Modern slavery’: This is what it is really like working on Aussie farms

‘Modern slavery’: This is what it is really like working on Aussie farms

The Australian government says locals won't take work on farms - but they just want to be paid fairly.
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Australia’s farming industry relies upon the exploitation of vulnerable foreigners working in conditions tantamount to “modern slavery”, former farm workers have told The New Daily.

After living in the unregulated underbelly of Australia’s farming industry for years and being paid as little as $12 an hour while being slugged exorbitant accommodation fees, exploited foreign farm workers are speaking out.

One young woman has told how her bosses at a farm run by a group of brothers would only hire foreign females who agreed to live in the employers’ house.

In another example, The New Daily has obtained text messages sent by four Malaysian men who were employed illegally by Australian farmers.

The messages between the men and their employer show how they were made to work without pay for five weeks.

One of the workers told The New Daily that Australian farmers’ reliance on exploitable workers is nothing short of “modern slavery”.

Others backpackers who spoke to TND showed payslips revealing they were paid well below the legal rate, and photos of the accommodation they were forced to pay for – at times more costly than a room in inner Sydney.

It’s the dark side of the nation’s venerated farming sector that you won’t hear about from politicians urging job seekers to “do it for the ‘gram” and fill fruit picking roles on farms, despite reports showing that many farmers simply refuse to hire locals.

The federal government, and politically powerful peak farmers body the National Farmers Federation, were unaware of the exploitative practice of tying contracts into costly accommodation, despite examples put to them by TND.

In response to this article, the NFF issued a statement saying it condemned any examples of poor treatment of farmworkers and has: “always been ‘eyes wide open’ to the deplorable, and sometimes, illegal actions by some rogue operators”.

“The NFF encourages workers who believe they have been mistreated or exploited, to report their experience to the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO), Border Force and or the police.

“Most growers do the right thing, and they are fed up with the industry being tarnished by the actions of the few who act outside the law.”

New information from the workers is further evidence of the exploitation.

Text messages between a group of migrant workers and their contractor, seen by The New Daily, show the Malaysian men begging to be paid the five weeks of pay owed to them.

Mobis, who has asked to use a pseudonym, was one of the men in the WhatsApp group.

One backpacker received this offer that equated to $16 a day after taxes and ‘board’.

Now back in Malaysia, the 30-year-old worked illegally in Australia for almost four years until he left late last year.

In that time he had more than 30 farms jobs and never received more than $18 an hour.

The minimum wage for fruit picking is $24.80 for casuals.

The lowest he was paid was nothing – for five weeks of work.

“The contractor told us she wasn’t going to pay the first week and she would pay a lump sum in the second week. Then pay every two weeks. We were like ‘OK, that’s all right’. We don’t have a choice,” he told The New Daily.  

“After two weeks, we asked ‘Where’s our money?’. They kept on delaying it.”

After five weeks, their contractor ignored their efforts to contact her.

“I find it really disappointing because people go there to find work and some people take advantage. It’s not a game. It’s life and death for us,” he said.

Mobis worked in the underbelly of Australia’s farm industry for almost four years. Photo: AAP

He said it was not unusual to work for as low as $12 an hour.

“I never had $24 an hour,” Mobis said.

“The highest I would get is $17 to $18 and that would make me happy.”

When asked about the industry’s attitudes towards Australians, he said farmers and contractors were so reluctant to hire locals at one point they pretended his Queensland mate was Brazilian so he could land the job.

“He had dark curly hair, so the farmers bought it,” he said.

Mobis said: “I can’t agree with the policy of foreign workers that the government provides. It’s modern slavery.

“It opens up a lot of potential for farmers and contractors to exploit workers.”

1500 applicants for farm work, not one got a job

Earlier last week cuts to the JobSeeker payment were announced, with Social Services Minister Anne Ruston doubling down on Wednesday on the government’s message that unemployed Australians needed to ‘‘dip their toe’’ back into the workforce.

The government has started offering unemployed Australians $6000 to take a job picking, but serious questions remain over whether farmers are willing to employ locals.

Many unemployed Australians have told The New Daily that despite applying for more than 20 farm jobs they cannot land one – because they are ‘‘not as exploitable’’ as foreign workers.

TND this month revealed that 1500 Australians registered for farm work with a company set up to connect locals with farmers in need of workers at the start of the pandemic, but not one got a job.

“We got 1500 applications from people desperate for farm work in three days,” one of the co-founders of AgriAus Australia told TND.

“We started making contact with farmers to gauge if they wanted people to go out there or not. We spoke to the Department of Agriculture to see if they could push it, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference because the farmers don’t want to change their habits.”

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown Australia’s fruit and vegetable picking industry into crisis, with an expected worker shortage by March of 26,000, and billions of dollars of produce at risk of being wasted if it can’t be picked.

The industry has been crying out for boots on the ground.

‘No job, no room and no room, no job’

Even those fortunate enough to be paid a proper wage have at times found they must live by strict rules that impose on privacy in workplaces where sexual harassment and bullying is rife.

Netherlands backpacker Lotte Van Dijk, who asked to use a pseudonym, worked more than the required 88 days on a farm in Victoria because of the pandemic.

She was forced to pay $170 to share a room with other women – in a regional town where rental units cost less than $200.

Ms Van Dijk and 21 other backpackers were given a full-time wage but were each forced to sleep in a dorm inside the homes of one of the male employers.

The women paid their rent every Monday, in cash – that equated to $200,000 extra cash in the farm owner’s pockets each year.

The farm only employed women and set up cameras to make sure no men came to the house.

The New Daily has agreed to keep Ms Van Dijk’s identity secret to protect her and other workers who fear they could face retaliatory action from their former bosses.

The ‘rules’ of the house Ms Van Dijk was forced to stay in to keep her job.

“My farm work experience was one of the worst experiences in my life,” Ms Van Dijk told The New Daily. 

The male managers would often flirt with their employees and take them out for drinks, she said.

“If you’re one of those girls who is flirted with, you better be nice because you can be treated poorly very quickly,” Ms Van Dijk said.

She said if a girl rejected the advances of a male manager she could be bullied.

One of the shared rooms in the house.

The workers felt like they had little choice but to keep their heads down and avoid complaining.

Ms Van Dijk said her bosses only ever employed foreign women – never Australians.

“Do you reckon they will be able to treat or make money off an Australian citizen the same as they do to those backpackers?” she said.

‘An appetite for underpaying’

Iain Campbell has researched the harvest labour market and said industry groups cry out for cheap foreign labour every year.

“Every year without fail, growers and associations and politicians linked with them have said ‘we’re facing a chronic shortage of labour and we need access to temporary workers’,” the University of Melbourne academic said.

If the farmers truly had a labour shortage that could be filled by some of the 1.4 million Australians out of work, they would be “bragging about their good working conditions, good living conditions, legal wages,” he said.

“Instead it’s the same old, same old: ‘We need the government to bring in more foreign workers’,” Dr Campbell said.

Over the past 15 years Australia’s horticulture industry has become so reliant on cheap labour that it has developed ‘‘an appetite for it”, he said.

But it’s not just that farmers and contractors can pay these workers less, they also have the right attitudes about being exploited, he said.

“It’s not just to do with cheapness, it’s often to do with the attitude of foreign workers.

“You’ll get people accepting very low rates of pay, and still come up smiling and not complaining. That’s harder to do with Australian workers.”

Sherry Huang is a former working holidaymaker visa holder who is completing her PhD on the exploitation of young migrant workers.

She said the pandemic has laid bare the conditions of the industry. But instead of dealing with it, politicians are using unemployed Australians as scapegoats.

“We have to ask the question, is the farmer short of the labour force or are they short low-paid workers? Are they willing to pay a decent wage?” she said.

minimum wage 2020
Unemployed Australians say they are struggling to get farm work. Photo: AAP

Instead of ensuring all workers, local and migrant, are paid legal wages, they target those they can exploit and ask the government to bring in more, she said.

I don’t know if it’s the farmers or the labour hire companies, but they are very good at sourcing the most vulnerable workers in the industry. They just keep jumping to the next category,” she said.

She said even when she worked as a picker for two years, almost a decade ago, it was the same story.

“We would hear caucasians from Canada or England can’t find the work because every time they knock on the door, the farmers say ‘oh we’re not interested in European because you know your rights better’.

“I’ve been saying this for 10 years. It has been going on for decades.”