Conclusive evidence of extreme labour exploitation, slave-like conditions and black market labour gangs has been found on farms and in factories supplying Australia’s biggest supermarkets and fast food chains.
An ABC Four Corners investigation revealed the food being picked, packed and processed by exploited workers is being sold to consumers nationwide.
The supermarkets involved include Woolworths, Coles, Aldi, IGA and Costco.
Fast food outlets KFC and Red Rooster are also implicated. Four Corners understands a third major fast food chain is also involved.
The foods tainted by exploitation include a wide variety of vegetables and poultry products, with some of the biggest brand names set to be named.
Migrant workers from Asia and Europe are being routinely abused, harassed and assaulted at work, the investigation found.
Women are also being targeted sexually, with women being propositioned for sex and asked to perform sexual favours in exchange for visas.
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.
Australia’s international reputation ‘under threat’
Labour law and migration expert Joanna Howe, a senior lecturer with the University of Adelaide Law School, said the 417 visa system had been corrupted so severely it was jeopardising Australia’s reputation globally.
“We will be known as a country that exploits vulnerable people who are looking for a better chance at life,” Dr Howe said.
“We would never accept this if it were Australian workers being treated in this way, but because it’s 417 visa holders and we don’t know them, there’s a lid on it, we accept that it’s okay.
“You know we just turn a blind eye.”
Ethical farmers and suppliers suffering
Four Corners also found farmers and suppliers who play by the rules and pay workers correctly are being dropped by the supermarkets, who are instead awarding contracts and sourcing food from cheaper suppliers using grossly exploited labour.
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.
“It’s gutting,” company CEO Steve Marafioti said, referring to the situation in South Australia.
Industry insiders and federal politicians are calling for urgent reforms to Australia’s fresh food supply chain before it is too late.
There are calls at a federal level for the supermarkets to stop shirking responsibility by passing accountability back to the suppliers and farmers.
The relentless downward pressure applied by supermarkets and the lax auditing regime governing labour hire contractors is forcing farmers and suppliers to resort to cut-price labour hire contractors to stay afloat.
Dr Howe said the solution was to replace the 417 visa with a new low-skill work visa.
“The Government, successive governments, Labor and Liberal have turned a blind eye to the fact that both international students and working holiday makers are being used as a low-skilled source of labour for farmers and other people across the country,” she said.
“It would allow the whole system to be better regulated.”
Multiple authorities and government agencies responsible for regulating the system, including the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Department of Immigration, stand accused of failing to stop the problem with labour hire contractors, which has reached breathtaking proportions.