Fairness on Our Farms

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Recently, Mark Zirnsak travelled to the Pacific to contribute to a meeting on guest workers in Australia. He was interviewed about his trip for this month’s JustAct.

Q: Please tell our readers about your recent trip to the Solomon Islands, why you were there and what impact it may have on Pacific Islanders.

A: The meeting in the Solomon Islands was between the governments of the Pacific countries with the governments of Australia and New Zealand to discuss the programs in Australia and New Zealand that bring workers in to work temporarily in both countries. The Pacific Island countries have growing problems with unemployment. For example, the Solomon Islands Government spoke about how there were 18,000 people reaching working age each year in the Solomon Islands and only around 3,000 new jobs are created each year. For many of the Pacific countries there are few opportunities for economic development to bring in money to fund things like schools and health care clinics. Therefore, having people go overseas to work and send money back to the Pacific countries is a major source of revenue for these countries and benefits the people working and their families.

I currently am notified by the Commonwealth Department of Jobs and Small Business every time a group of workers from the Pacific comes in on the Seasonal Worker Program in Australia to work on farms or in hospitality. I try to link the workers in with local churches if they wish to do so, for support and social connection.I was at the meeting in the Solomon Islands to feed in my experience of the program in Australia.

Q: Why is this issue of importance to the Uniting Church?

A: The Uniting Church has a strong partnership with churches in the Pacific and has a long standing concern for addressing poverty. The Uniting Church has also opposed racism, and people from the Pacific too often face racism in rural Australia.

We have tried to ensure that the people from the Pacific get decent treatment while working in Australia. Ideally the Australian farmers should get reliable workers to fill jobs they cannot find Australians to do and the people from the Pacific get to go home with around $10,000 at the end of six months for their families. People from the Pacific returning home with that amount of money have often used it to provide better education for their children, build better homes and set up their own small business in the Pacific.     

Q:  In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of the seasonal worker visa program in Australia?

A: When the programs work well, the people from the Pacific gain much needed money and they often pick up skills while in Australia. They can also make meaningful friendships with members of the Australian community and their employer. Some employers have gone to the Pacific to visit the villages where the people working for them have come from.

On the negative side, since the Seasonal Program started in 2012 there have been 14 deaths of people from the Pacific on the program. Some have been in car accidents and others from health conditions. In some cases the Australian labour hire company or the farmer have ripped the people from the Pacific off, usually through over-charging on accommodation and transport. In the worst case we have dealt with the workers were only clearing $50 a week despite working more than full-time. However, the Department of Jobs and Small Business have increased their oversight of the program and such cases of exploitation would appear to be becoming rare.

Q: What is the main interest of the National Farmers Federation on this issue?

A: The National Farmers Federation (NFF) claims to represent the interests of farmers. Farmers do have a great need for people to work on the farms, especially for farms of fruit and vegetables at harvest time. However, in my opinion the NFF has worked to provide cover for farmers engaged in criminal activity on farms, resisting reforms that would help weed out those farmers that exploit and mistreat the people working on their farms.

The NFF does not support an expansion of the Seasonal Worker Program to cover the shortage of people working on the farms and is instead lobbying for a new agricultural visa that would have less safeguards for people coming from overseas against exploitation.

Q: What do the Pacific Island nations have to gain from this program?

A: The Pacific Island nations gain income from the money people bring home. At the moment, money from their people working overseas is the main source of income for Fiji, Samoa, Timor Leste, Tonga and Vanuatu.

Q: What is life like in Australia for seasonal workers working in agriculture? Are there any outstanding differences between backpackers that use agricultural work to extend their visas and Pacific Islander workers that come over on the seasonal visa? What other types of workers undertake work in agriculture?

A: There are four main groups that work on farms. Local Australian workers, who have become fewer over time, which has been a combination of the high prevalence of low (often illegally low) pay on farms and hard work. Then there are the people on the Seasonal Worker Program, who at the moment numbered nearly 8,500 in the last year. Then there are over 35,000 backpackers who get their visa extended by a year if they work 88 days on a farm and the farmer signs off on the work. Finally there are tens of thousands of people working illegally on farms, usually having a tourist visa. There are organised trafficking rings that trick thousands of people from Malaysia to come and work illegally in Australia.

Each of these groups gets exploited to varying degrees. Those working illegally usually are subject to the greatest exploitation, as they fear the employer will report them to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection if they do not comply with whatever the employer wants them to do.

The people on the Seasonal Worker Program have the greatest number of safeguards against exploitation, except they are tied to the employer that brings them into Australia. They cannot change employers and the employer can have them removed from Australia at any time. This has made people on the program open to exploitation for fear they will be removed from Australia.

Backpackers have the option to leave the farm any time they want. That said, many put up with illegal treatment to get the second year on their visa. Women backpackers have been subjected to sexual assault and exploitation, especially on remote farms where they cannot easily leave.

Q: What other advocacy work has the Justice and International Mission cluster been involved in on this issue?

A: The Justice and International Mission cluster has worked with the Department of Jobs and Small Business to make sure the safeguards on the Seasonal Worker Program work. We have also been part of a Labour Trafficking Working Group of the Attorney General’s National Roundtable on Human Trafficking and Slavery. The Working Group was made up of government officials, the Australian Federal Police, Border Force, the Fair Work Ombudsman and anti-slavery groups such as ourselves. The Working Group has produced a report with recommendations for the Minister for Justice to help stamp out exploitation of people coming to Australia temporarily to work.

We have campaigned for labour hire businesses to have to be licensed, so that it will be possible to know who is behind the businesses and hold them to account for any exploitation of the people they employ. The Victorian and Queensland Governments have introduced labour hire licensing schemes.

We have also campaigned for laws to protect whistleblowers that expose criminal activities by private businesses, which would include on farms and by labour hire companies. Such protection is currently lacking. The first step towards whistleblower protection for people working for private business is currently before the Senate, but the government has not brought forward the Bill for debate for nearly a year since they introduced it.

Q: What can our readers living in rural areas do to help with the issue of exploitation of agricultural workers and/or seasonal workers?

A: Our members should seek to befriend people working in their area from overseas. Some congregations have provided great support to people working in Australia from overseas. This has included involving them in church services, taking them on picnics, taking them on shopping trips, helping them with accommodation and with navigating life in Australia. Some congregations have held BBQs for backpackers in their town to make them feel welcome and to support them.

If our supporters become aware of any allegations of exploitation, they should report such allegations to us for further investigation and we can also pass them on to the appropriate authorities.