The government is pushing job seekers and students into farm work with the launch of a sweeping social media campaign – but there’s still no assurances workers will be paid a fair wage.
Farmers say they are desperate for workers, but Australians on the ground have told The New Daily they’re still being underpaid, and underemployed compared to backpackers.
On Wednesday the Morrison government launched a social media blitz to fill more than 26,000 vacant farm jobs, targeting 400,000 Australians and visa holders aged between 18 and 30 in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.
Fruit and vegetable pickers, packers, pruners and planters are in demand across the three states.
The government has also been offering a cash incentive – $6000 to relocate to the regions to help with farm work, but so far only 150 have taken up the offer.
In an industry rife with exploitation, there is no clear promise they will be paid minimum wage.
Many of the picking jobs on offer are paying piece rates – where the employee gets paid by the amount picked – but many workers say it’s impossible to make minimum wage on those rates.
Australian Workers Union assistant national secretary Misha Zelinsky
said the industry wage sits at a bare minimum which, combined with historic low wage growth, left room for improvement.
“The bigger issue, however, is how frequently the award is ignored without consequence,” Mr Zelinsky said.
‘Set up to fail’
Sarah Jones, 38, has worked as picker most of her adult life and runs a share house for backpackers to stay when they come to work on farms at Tully, a regional Queensland town.
She says she has “no idea” how anyone makes a living from piece rates.
“It’s like they’re setting them up to fail. You have people, depending on how fast they’re going, they can make $40 for a day,” Ms Jones told The New Daily.
“They need to make it worthwhile. Why don’t they give a base salary? So they say, ‘You will make guaranteed $400 to $500 this week and your commission on top if you pick X amount’.”
Some people The New Daily has spoken to said they took home just $60 a day on piece rates.
This is before many workers are forced to cough up for accommodation that can cost upwards of $300 a week.
This stokes fears young and vulnerable workers will be drawn out into the regions by the government’s incentive, only to find they can’t make enough money to survive.
Ms Jones has made a decent wage by working for an hourly rate and says the farms around Tully are “unique” in the fact they pay their workers well.
Since September, when she left her banana picking job, she has not been able to find more work.
“I have experience and live here. I can offer longevity, but I struggled to find a farm that was willing to put me on,” she said.
“There is that stigma, we (Australians) don’t work hard.”
She recently got a few days work picking fruit but was laid off with the other Australians – yet the farm kept 10 backpackers.
“I reckon there would have been 15 (employed) and out of that five Australians lost their job and 10 backpackers kept their jobs.
“They don’t justify it. They just dismiss you.”
She sees similar situations replicated for the backpackers she accommodates – they have no problems finding jobs.
Breakdown between farmers, workers
Ms Jones has joined a growing chorus of Australians who say they have applied and been rejected from farm work – some of them up to 20 times.
There’s mistrust between the two groups, she said.
Farmers don’t trust Australians to work hard, and Australians don’t trust farmers to pay them properly.
“I think the lack of contact and communication between farmers and Australians is really poor,” she said.
The government did not respond before deadline to The New Daily’s questions about how they would ensure Australians would be properly paid.
And Australians looking for farm work have no way of telling if they will be joining a farm that pays fairly.
Across Australia’s horticulture industry just 30 Australian farms have completed a government program designed to ensure workers are not exploited.
The scheme, called Fair Farms, is frequently championed by industry groups and the federal government to defend the ‘clean up’ of Australia’s horticulture industry, where exploitation of workers is a chronic issue.
But since the voluntary scheme was launched in June 2019 only 30 farms have been certified via the program, which has cost taxpayers more than $1.5 million.
Fair Farms is meant to foster responsible employment practices in the Australian horticulture industry and is backed by the powerful industry group, the National Farmers Federation, and major retailers, such as Coles, Woolworths and Aldi.