Pickers at work on a blueberry farm.
Pickers at work on a blueberry farm.

Appalling picker conditions the ‘elephant in the room’

A PARLIAMENTARY committee on migration has unanimously recommended a 'Gap Year at Home' program to encourage school and university graduates to spend time doing agricultural and horticultural work.

Under the proposal young Australians could be given student debt discounts to work across regional Australia in a bid to plug critical labour shortages.

The Committee recommends that the Morrison Government 'urgently develop and implement' the campaign.

But the Australian Workers' Union says the proposal is a distraction from the main issue keeping unemployed Australians from working on farms: rampant law breaking by employers.

AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton branded it a "cute idea" for the horticulture sector but it deliberately ignores the elephant in the room.

"There is a now a million Australians searching for work. We don't need exotic branded schemes to entice them into horticulture, we just need farms to obey the law," Mr Walton said.

The rapid growth of intensive farming, particularly for blueberries, across the Coffs Harbour region means an influx of pickers during the peak of the season.

But according to the AWU this has led to exploitation of a vulnerable workforce.

The AWU says many farms on the mid north coast use "dodgy labour hire companies" to employ workers to pick their produce, who then charge excessive accommodation and transport costs which once they take out of their weekly wage, leaves workers with little if anything to live on.

"It's a rort. The AWU has seen inside some of these shipping containers, sheds and homes around the Coffs Harbour region that workers are expected to live in. They're often packed in like sardines, yet charged well above what you would expect for such low standards," Mr Walton said.

The AWU says bad employers are rampant in the fruit and vegetable industry because they know they have a virtual green light from government.
The AWU says bad employers are rampant in the fruit and vegetable industry because they know they have a virtual green light from government.

"There are plenty of people making good money in this industry, just not the workers."

He says the Gap Year at Home program is no solution to this problem.

"The reason Australians are not being employed on farms is because too many employers in the sector prefer to hire people they can easily underpay, exploit, and, in many cases, harass.

"We know this not a case of a few bad apples. Bad employers are rampant in the fruit and vegetable industry because they know they have a virtual green light from government to ignore Australian employment laws."

The AWU says it's time for the farmers who do the right thing to start calling out the bad behaviour.

"Regional communities know who the law breakers are. Being silent isn't good enough."

The union says that if Australians were confident they could earn award rates picking fruit they would flock to vacancies.

"If we clean up the industry - through stronger penalties, labour hire regulation, union inspections, and wages checks - we won't need silly schemes like 'gap year at home.'"

Mr Walton says the reality is that the vast majority of workers don't come close to earning much more than a few hundred dollars each week for back breaking work and that some workers make as little as $4 a hour.



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