Mike* was excited to travel to Australia from his home country of Vanuatu to pick fruit during the harvest season under the federal government’s Seasonal Worker Program.

Key points:

  • Seasonal workers who ran away from their employer jumped from 225 to more than 1,100 in the past year
  • Studies also show there are between 60,000 to 100,000 undocumented workers on Australian farms
  • A one-off amnesty to grant visas to undocumented workers has been proposed under the federal government’s National Agricultural Workforce Strategy

“I wanted to join the Seasonal Worker Program to work for my family, and to take some money home,” he told 7.30.

Migrant workers have provided a lifeline to farmers throughout the pandemic.

But there is a hierarchy within the migrant farming workforce – from Pacific Islanders working in regulated government schemes to a much larger cohort of workers operating in the shadows with few rights and little recognition.

When Mike arrived at his first farm picking grapes, it wasn’t what he expected.

His wage was determined by the number of boxes he picked, and he wasn’t earning enough to repay the cost of his visa and airfare – let alone send money home.

A group of pickers pick grapes wearing high vis shirts and surrounded by vines.

Mike says it’s important for seasonal workers to know their rights.(ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)

His boss refused to let him go to church on the weekend, insisting Mike was required to work.

“They said if I continue to go to church on Sabbath then they would send me home,” he said.

With the help of the United Workers Union, Mike was able to resolve these issues and stayed on until the work dried up at the end of the harvest season.

He moved to another farm picking blueberries, but he once again struggled to earn a decent wage after wet weather delayed the start of the picking season.

“I didn’t send anything home, because [I had] no money,” he said.

Blueberry crops

Seasonal workers are often approached by rogue labour hire contractors promising better opportunities, but the reality is far different. (ABC Coffs Coast: Claudia Jambor)

Eventually, he was approached by a rogue labour hire contractor who promised him a lucrative job outside the confines of the government scheme, which requires employers to meet specific eligibility requirements to hire Pacific Islander and Timorese workers.

“[The contractor said] he can give me more hours, good accommodation, everything. So I [made] my decision to run away to go to the different employer,” Mike said.

But when he got there he was paid in cash, earning as little as $300 for six days’ work, and sharing a room with five others in a house with no lighting.

“When I got there and when I realised that everything is not true, I was very regret[ful],” he said.

Mike once again turned to the union and was able to reconnect with the Seasonal Worker Program.

He has since returned to Vanuatu, and hopes to come back to Australia for next year’s harvest, but said it was important for workers to know their rights.

Seasonal Worker Program is ‘the best regulated’

Figures show the number of seasonal workers who ran away from their employer jumped from 225 to 1,181 in the past year, prompting the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to release a poster warning workers who abscond: “You may bring shame to your family’s reputation”.

Following a backlash, DFAT is reviewing the posters, which are no longer available to download from their website.

DFAT poster with text and a brown man with his face in his hands.

This poster by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade warns workers of the risks and consequences of absconding.(DFAT)

An Australian government spokesperson said there was a “zero tolerance” approach to worker exploitation, and workers are briefed before departure and on arrival in Australia to ensure they understand their visa entitlements.

Human rights lawyers say the high rate of absconding is a consequence of widespread exploitation and wage theft within the Seasonal Worker Program, with a class action being prepared.

But migration law expert Joanna Howe said within the hierarchy of migrant farm workers, those under the Seasonal Worker Program fare comparatively well.

“There really are some horrible examples of abuse in that program – unlawful deductions, exorbitant prices for accommodation, wage theft – but the reason we find out is because that’s a regulated program,” she said.

“The irony is that [the Seasonal Worker Program] is the best regulated out of all the various programs we have to bring temporary migrants onto farms in Australia.

Woman sitting in a chair with her hands folded in her lap, wearing corporate attire.

Joanna Howe says there are other migrant workers who are in far more vulnerable predicaments.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

One such cohort is those working on farms without valid visas, commonly known as undocumented workers.

Studies show there are between 60,000 to 100,000 undocumented workers on Australian farms.

“I think most Australians would be surprised to find out that each one of us has eaten fruit and vegetables picked or packed by an undocumented migrant,” Ms Howe said.

She said most undocumented workers have paid a hefty fee to a “dodgy” migration agent to organise their visa and what they’re promised will be a well-paying job – only to arrive and discover they’re on a tourist visa with no right to work.

They will then typically meet an unscrupulous labour hire contractor who takes them to the regions, where they are forced to work on farms to repay their debt.

Various vegetables at a fruit and vegetable shop

Most Australians would be surprised to find out that they’ve eaten fruit and vegetables picked or packed by an undocumented migrant, says Joanna Howe.(Unsplash: ja ma)

“The farmer deals with the contractor. The contractor gets a lump sum,” Ms Howe said.

“The farmer might even think that he or she is paying the right amount for that group of workers, but the contractor takes a lot and the workers get very little.

“Unless we address the presence of undocumented workers on farms, we will not be able to address the issue of substantial wage theft and exploitation of all migrant farm workers in Australia.”

Undocumented workers feel ‘trapped’

Several undocumented workers spoke on the condition of anonymity.

One man from Malaysia said he was told he could earn more than $300 a day picking fruit in Australia.

But when he arrived five years ago, he was only earning around $30 a day doing back-breaking work.

At one farm, he paid $40 a week to live in a shipping container with eight others.

A young woman brought hand-written payslips from a labour hire contractor showing she was paid just $28.50 for a day’s work plucking leaves from grapevines.

The workers have no access to Medicare or health insurance, and most are afraid to go to the hospital if they’re unwell or injured.

A woman who lives in the Sunraysia region, Esita, said some of her friends had lived in Australia without valid visas for more than 20 years, during which time many had married and had children.

She said undocumented workers were routinely bullied and verbally abused, while many women were sexually harassed and inappropriately touched while climbing ladders to pick fruit.

“They can’t answer back because they’re so scared,” she said.

Woman wearing a red United Workers Union shirt and black hijab.

Local documented worker Dewi says she knows undocumented workers who feel as if they have nowhere else to go.(ABC News: Michael Nudl)

Another local woman, Dewi, said some of her friends who are undocumented workers feared deportation if they spoke out.

“They still choose to work in the same farm, the same place, because they feel like they have nowhere to go,” she said.

And it’s not just the workers who are suffering.

Harvest left to rot 

At Ian McAlister’s stone fruit orchard near Swan Hill, the smell of rotting fruit hangs in the air.

The grower typically needs 60 workers for the peak harvest. Instead, he has 16.

Pickers are frantically working to harvest trees bursting with ripe apricots, peaches and nectarines.

But it’s impossible to pick all the fruit on the sprawling orchard, so Mr McAlister has no choice but to watch 350 tonnes of fresh peaches – about 7,000 trees’ worth – drop to the ground.

Stonefruit laying on the ground.

Ian McAlister has been forced to watch tonnes of stone fruit drop to the ground and rot due to a lack of seasonal workers.(ABC News: Ella Archibald-Binge)

“In the past two years, I’ve pulled out nearly 200 acres without replanting, and if it keeps going like it currently today, the rest of it will go within the next couple of months.”

Four years ago, Mr McAlister decided not to work with contractors who employed undocumented workers.

Without them, and without the usual stream of backpackers, he’s barely staying afloat.

“We’re doing the right thing and we’re getting absolutely caned,” he said.

Farmer in hi-vis clothes standing in an orchard farm.

Ian McAlister only has 16 workers helping him during the peak harvest season at his stonefruit orchard. (ABC News: Ella Archibald-Binge)

United Worker Union national secretary Tim Kennedy said undocumented workers had been propping up the horticulture industry for years.

The federal government’s National Agricultural Workforce Strategy outlines two ways to shore up the farm labour market: introduce a national licensing program to crack down on unscrupulous labour hire contractors, and issue a one-off amnesty – or status resolution – to grant visas to undocumented workers.

Mr McAlister said granting working rights to undocumented migrants would allow him to employ the workers directly, rather than dealing with exploitative labour hire contractors.

The proposal for an amnesty has won the backing of Nationals MP Anne Webster, whose electorate of Mallee encompasses Robinvale and Swan Hill.

Dr Anne Webster is standing for the Nationals in the 2019 election for the seat of Mallee.

Anne Webster is backing the proposal for a one-off amnesty for undocumented seasonal workers.(Supplied)

“I think that we should have a compassionate response, an understanding resolution and a pathway to permanent residency should be on the table.”

But a spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs said the government does not support an amnesty, which would “likely create a perverse incentive for people to gain illegal entry into Australia, effectively on false pretences, overstay their visa and go to ground until the government of the day announces a new amnesty”.

“This would also send the wrong message to employers, who are breaking the law when they employ unlawful non-citizens,” they said.

The last time Australia offered a mass amnesty for undocumented migrants was in 1980.

The spokesperson said the Australian Border Force has dedicated officers to combat foreign worker exploitation, and the government is working with states and territories to implement a national approach to labour hire regulation.

An Australian Border Force officer, with badge in foreground, holds a passport in background.

The Australian Border Force has dedicated officers to combat foreign worker exploitation.(Supplied: ABF)

The federal government has also proposed new laws which, if passed, would introduce criminal offences for using a person’s migration status to exploit them in the workplace.

There are also plans to stem labour shortages on farms by rolling out a new agriculture visa for workers from south-east Asia, which will include a pathway to permanent residency.

As one worker said: “We pick your food. Just treat us like your own local people.”

*Name has been changed for privacy reasons

Posted , updated 

$40 per week to live in a shipping container: Inside horticulture’s ‘dark underbelly’
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