The government is using cash to lure Australians into farm work in a bid to quell worker shortages, but job seekers say they’re applying in droves and being knocked back.
It’s the latest instalment in the dichotomy that is presenting itself in the country’s fruit-and-vegetable picking trade.
Farmers say they can’t get locals to do the work; locals say they can’t get hired because farmers don’t want to pay them a ‘reasonable’ wage.
The cash injection is a policy tweak that demonstrates the Morrison government’s workforce relocation policies have been a flop.
From May eligible JobSeekers will get up to $2000 if they move to a new location for secure work – for example, leaving the city to pick in a regional area.
Employment Minister Stuart Robert repeated the government’s anecdotal claim from farmers that produce is being left to rot as the horticultural sector struggles to find willing workers, with the migrant workforce shut out of the country.
“These changes ensure that all job seekers eligible for relocation assistance, not just those in financial hardship, can get upfront support when they take up an offer of ongoing work, including for ongoing jobs in the agricultural sector,” Mr Robert said.
But while the industry says locals are snubbing their nose at the jobs, in the past two months alone at least 3600 JobSeekers took up picking work on Australian farms, data provided by the Department of Education, Skills and Employment shows.
There were 6600 harvest job vacancies, but 1900 applicants who were fit and willing to do the work had their applications rejected – calling some to question the insistence that farmers are ‘desperate’ for boots on the ground.
In the past six months,TND has spoken to countless Australians who have taken up picking work.
Some have been paid minimum wage and loved the experience; others have been exploited, forced to leave jobs that didn’t pay enough to live off.
Shalee Skerman, 20, is one of them. She lost her job in Toowoomba last year and has recently applied for 12 picking jobs across New South Wales and Queensland – but heard nothing back.
Ms Skerman said while some farmers were obviously in need of employees, she believes she was discriminated against because she is Australian and female.
“There are heaps of people who are in the same situation as myself. And we are all finding it hard to secure a job,” she told TND.
The introduction of the $2000 incentive comes after the apparent failure of hiring credit scheme JobMaker, which was designed to entice horticulture farmers to employ out-of-work younger Australians.
The industry shunned the scheme. Of the 609 young JobSeekers employed through the program, none found work picking on our farms.
War on piece
The Australian Workers Union has applied to the Fair Work Commission to amend the current horticulture award to ensure farmworkers receive the minimum casual wage of $24.80 an hour, in a bid to push out controversial piece rates.
The proposal is backed by Labor, but the National Farmers Federation has said it will take a stand against the push, saying about half of the horticulture industry uses the piece rate method and arguing there is no capacity to pass on additional costs.
The NFF argues piece rates allow a person to earn 15 per cent more than the minimum wage.
But a recent report by Unions NSW again revealed widespread exploitation on farms, with claims some farm workers are earning as little as $2 an hour.
Based on interviews with 100 workers and an audit of 1000 job advertisements offering farm work, the report said “96 per cent of piece rates advertised would not allow workers to earn the national minimum wage, and in several instances workers would earn less than $1 an hour”.
Australian Workers Union acting national secretary Misha Zelinsky said: “It’s vital to remember that fruit and veg is the most highly profitable sector in agriculture. They can afford to pay.”
“We’ve allowed this sector to grow addicted to exploitation. Like most addictions, it’s destructive and harmful.”
The solution is to introduce a minimum guaranteed wage and enforce it, he said.
“Australians will gladly do hard work, as they do in many other sectors, but they’re also not idiots. They know it’s an industry with terrible standards and pay,” Mr Zelinsky said.
“This nation was founded on the principle of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. It’s not a revolutionary concept – and our legal case will fix it.”
Do you know more? Contact Cait Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org