The Guardian • Issue #1950

The rot at the heart of our fruit-picking industry

Sunraysia, in Victoria’s north known for its table grapes, vineyards, citrus fruit, and olives. It is a popular working holiday destination, with plenty of work on the fruit blocks for migrant labourers. But this year, despite rising unemployment and food insecurity among Australian workers, the fruit blocks are empty, and thousands of kilograms of fruit are being left to rot on the trees. There is a shortage of migrant workers due to the pandemic, but the problem runs deeper than that. The current situation on Australia’s produce farms exposes an industry where exploitative conditions are driven by the capitalist profit motive.

In mid-2020 the Australian government lobbied young Australians to take up work in the agricultural sector, following a sharp decrease in the number of migrant workers during the pandemic. It was billed as a fun, easy way to make some money and meet new people, while seeing some of the countryside. This may have seemed an attractive offer to many of Australia’s young people – one in three young Australians are currently unemployed or underemployed – but the reality is far from glamorous. Migrant workers and backpackers in the fruit picking industry are among the most exploited employees in the country.

Without the status of permanent residency or citizenship, migrant workers are unable to receive social security benefits. They are therefore often very dependent on their jobs to get by, especially given that working visas have very strict conditions on the amount and type of work which migrants can do in Australia. This, combined with the isolation, insecurity and low pay of farm work, as well as a general sense of unfamiliarity with their rights as workers in Australia, make it difficult for migrant workers to speak out about their treatment at work.

The majority of farmworkers – up to sixty per cent on some farms – are migrants or working holiday makers, but the conditions are no better for domestic workers. Farm work is unstable, the pay is low, and the hours are long. Some fruit pickers work up to twelve hours a day for piece rates (a pay rate for the amount picked, packed, pruned or made). One piece-rate worker reported an income of just $550 for sixty hours or work. That’s less money than the full rate of Newstart, for more hours work than the average office worker in the major cities. Hourly rates can be as low as $9.

Therefore, it is not surprising that for many farm workers, the cost of their accommodation is more than they make in a week. Workers are often forced to live in local hostel-type accommodation at up to $250 per week for a bed in a shared room. In some situations, this accommodation is owned or run by the employers themselves and is often cramped, un-airconditioned and in poor condition.

Conditions on the fruit blocks are not better. Fruit pickers work up to twelve hours a day in the heat and the cold, with workers reporting being fired on the spot for infractions as minor as having their phone out during the day. This insecurity is compounded by the geographical isolation of many agricultural regions. Major fruit picking districts like Sunraysia in the north of Victoria are often many hours’ drive from the nearest capital city. Public transport infrastructure is also severely lacking in these regions.

The border closures and restrictions on travel distances have further impeded the mobility required for migrant workers to fulfil their visa obligations. When Melbourne and then regional Victoria got shut down, many migrant workers got trapped in the city unable to look for rural work. Those whose visas allowed them to seek work in the city were forced to compete in a highly competitive domestic labour market in the city as unemployment soared. For migrant workers the stakes were life or death – at no point was Jobkeeper extended to them even though many became trapped here due to international travel restrictions.

Marx observed that “[it] is in the very nature of the capitalistic mode of production to overwork some workers while keeping the rest as a reserve army of unemployed paupers.” In ordinary times, cheap migrant labour acts as this reserve army on the fruit blocks, keeping the demand for jobs high and wages low. High demand and hard work makes for very unstable jobs. But the pandemic is not ordinary times. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed the extent to which the profit motive drives the conditions of farm workers.

This is a system that was bound to fail the moment access to cheap labour could no longer be sourced. Low food prices make mean razor thin profit margins for fruit growers. Domestic workers are more expensive than migrant workers, not only because they’re paid more but because they’re more prone to speaking up and exercising their rights as workers.

For this reason, small growers on orange blocks in Sunraysia have begun to turn away all domestic workers rather than run a loss for this years’ harvest. Along the highways in the Victoria’s north, hand-painted signs proclaiming “No workers needed!” are a common sight. With the added pressure of bushfire damage and climate change many employers simply cannot afford to pay award wages. Of course, the obverse of this is that domestic workers are also less willing to do gruelling farm work for extremely low rates of pay.

As the major supermarkets compete to keep the price of basic foodstuffs low, farmers feel the pressure to cut costs. Outsourcing farm work to migrant workers protects the bottom line. The less they have to pay their pickers, the higher the profit they can fetch for their produce. There is no reason why this fruit cannot be sold, other than that farmers can’t pay their workers, and distributors won’t buy for a higher cost. Capitalist greed is leaving good food to rot on the tree while Australian workers in the cities starve.

So what is the immediate solution for a crisis this complex? To begin with, the fruit picking industry is badly in need of regulation, especially concerning the pay and conditions of migrant workers. The AWU calls for fair piece rates for farm workers. But fair wages are expensive for small growers struggling as it is to get by. Small farms ought to be subsidised by the government to make higher wages feasible and to ensure that food isn’t left to rot when millions of Australians need it.

Better transport networks are needed to allow pickers to travel easily to and stay in the fruit-picking regions, and visa conditions must be loosened. Jobkeeper ought to be extended to all unemployed workers unable to leave the country. Most fundamentally, migrant workers ought to be educated on their rights at work and their class position, to help them organise and demand a return to work under fair conditions.

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