Only 30 Australian farms have joined a government program to ensure workers are not exploited, TBEN can reveal – although job seekers continue to be drawn into the industry.
The program, called Fair Farms, is frequently championed by industry groups and the federal government to defend the “clean-up” of the Australian horticultural industry, where worker exploitation is a chronic problem.
But since the voluntary program launched in June 2019, only 30 farms have been certified through the program, costing taxpayers more than $ 1.5 million.
The industry has been in the spotlight recently for its rampant exploitation, low wages, and forced accommodations that can cost over $ 300 a week.
Despite this, the government continued its campaign to lure the unemployed – including gap year students – to Australia’s toughest workspace, by hosting a job fair on the crop trail and by encouraging them to get their hands dirty, without being able to ensure that they are being paid properly.
The fair, held on Thursdays, is designed to connect job seekers with farmers who are short of employees.
Speaking to attendees, Fair Farms national program manager Marsha Aralar revealed that only 30 farms have joined the program.
Fair Farms aims to promote responsible employment practices in the Australian horticultural industry and is supported by the powerful industry group, the National Farmers Federation, and large retailers such as Coles, Woolworths and Aldi.
TBEN found that unemployed Australians find it difficult to find agricultural work because they are “not as exploitable” as foreigners.
“We’ve been there for about a year and a half and have about 30 certified sites in Australia,” Ms. Aralar said.
“When we have more, we will come up with a list of Fair Trade Farms so that job seekers like you and consumers can identify that they buy and work for a Fair Trade Farm.
Job seekers cannot even access the list of approved farms. Ms Aralar said they were delaying releasing anything until they got “critical mass.”
Fair Farms would not provide an additional breakdown of which farms have signed up, but Ms Aralar said, “Industry-wide behavior change does not come easily.”
“Registration for Fair Farms is completely voluntary and completed at will. We don’t put a stopwatch on the producers to know when they finish the program, ”she said. TBEN.
Currently, 200 farms are in training with the program. Accreditation is provided by self-assessment.
“2020 has been an eventful year for all, the travel restrictions of listeners and the stress on all have caused an unprecedented disruption,” Ms. Aralar said..
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the government is working to ensure the industry is cleaned up.
“Fair Farms is an industry-led initiative. The Australian government has provided funding to support this initiative and applauds the industry leadership in this program, ”Mr. Littleproud said.
“Through the Fair Labor Ombudsman, the government will continue to work to ensure that the few who do wrong in the industry do not damage the reputation of the vast majority.”
The Ministry of Education, Skills and Employment organized the job fair. He would not answer questions about the systems in place that ensured that the jobs that the fair connected participants with were free from exploitation and legally remunerated.
Daniel Walton, AWU National Secretary, said the industry doesn’t need job fairs or relocation funds to bring Australians to farms – they just need farmers to pay them properly .
“The reason Australians are not employed on farms is that too many employers in the sector prefer to hire people whom they can easily underpay, exploit and in many cases harass, ”Mr. Walton said. .
“We know it’s not a case of a few bad apples.
“Bad employers are rife in the fruit and vegetable industry because they know they have the virtual green light from the government to ignore Australian employment laws.”
Without tougher penalties, regulations on the hiring of workers, union inspections and wage controls, Australians would continue to avoid the industry, he said.
“It is time for farmers who are doing the right thing to start speaking out about bad behavior. The regional communities know who the offenders are. Being silent is not enough, ”he says.
In each of the fair’s workshops, there was no mention of operating conditions, and industry leaders glossed over issues such as forced housing.
A spokesperson for MADEC, a national charity that connects pickers with farms, assured attendees they would be able to find cheap accommodation – despite widespread evidence that pickers are often forced to stay in expensive hostels that can cost over $ 300 a week.
“There are obviously backpacker hostels, there are cheap hotels, then other accommodation and… certainly in a lot of places the farmers will let you bring your own tent,” he said.
Asked about piece rates – where the employee is paid according to the amount chosen – the spokesperson said some workers preferred it because they knew they could “beat the hourly rate.”
“If you’re quick and you know how to pick grapes, you can make some money,” he said, adding that “nobody is going to retire rich.”
But workers who have chosen piece prices say it may be impossible to earn a living wage.
Noah Wun, 33, a harvester with more than 10 years of experience previously revealed that he received a contract from MADEC stating that he wouldn’t make a fuss if he earned below the minimum wage at the room.
The occasional minimum wage in Australia is $ 753.80 per 38-hour week and he was paid almost 25 percent less than that – just $ 577.
Legally, there was nothing he could do.