How Can We Avoid ‘Slave’ Food?

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Workers at Covino Farm in Longford. Source: News Limited

Some of Australia’s biggest food suppliers and supermarkets are facing a national backlash after investigations into the exploitation of farm workers was revealed in an investigation by ABC’s Four Corners program.

The Four Corners report titled ‘Slaving Away’ looked into the slave-like conditions of foreigners employed on 417 working holiday visas across Australia, exposed the disturbing practices of suppliers linked to Coles, Woolworths, Aldi, Costco, IGA as well as KFC and Red Rooster.

The program revealed migrant workers employed on farms picking fruit and vegetables or processing chicken, were in some cases being paid wages as low as $3.95 an hour. They found some were working 22 hour shifts, being provided dog beds to sleep on and were asked to perform sexual favours to extend their visa or improve their working conditions.

Even more shocking, there was also fears of organised prostitution syndicates moving in across the country.

One of those interviewed included 24-year-old Winnie who was contracted to work at Victoria’s Covino Farms by labour hire company Chompran Enterprises. Winnie told of her experience of being attacked and assaulted by a man, known only as “Sam”, who represents Chompran at the vegetable farm. She tells of being sexually assaulted by “Sam” shortly after seriously injuring her hand whilst working on the production line.

She reported the incident to police and Covino Farms but has not seen any action in five months.

Here is an excerpt from the ABC program. To view the full episode, click this link:

Monday 4th May 2015

Slaving away: The dirty secrets behind Australia’s fresh food.

It’s in your fridge and on your table: the fresh food that we take for granted.

But there’s a dirty secret behind it.

Much of it is picked and packed by a hidden army of migrant workers who are ruthlessly exploited.

“There is slave labour in this country.” – Queensland grower

A Four Corners investigation has uncovered gangs of black market workers run by unscrupulous labour hire contractors operating on farms and in factories around the country.

The produce they supply ends up in our major supermarkets and fast food chains.

“Almost every fresh product that you pick up… will have passed through the hands of workers who have been fundamentally exploited.” – Union official

These labour hire contractors prey upon highly vulnerable young foreigners, many with very limited English, who have come to Australia with dreams of working in a fair country.

They’re subjected to brutal working hours, degrading living conditions and the massive underpayment of wages.

Reporter Caro Meldrum-Hanna has obtained undercover footage and on-camera accounts of this dark world. One migrant worker told her:

“I felt like we were going back in time… the way we were being treated was inhumane.”

And another:

“It made me question Australia as a country.”

Female workers are particularly at risk with women coming forward to make allegations of harassment and assault.

From farmers’ fields to factory floors, the program tells the story of those workers who slave away to produce the food we buy and eat on a daily basis.

SLAVING AWAY, reported by Caro Meldrum-Hanna and presented by Kerry O’Brien, goes to air on Monday 4th May at 8.30pm. It is replayed on Tuesday 5th May at 10.00am and Wednesday 6th at midnight. It can also be seen on ABC News 24 on Saturday at 8.00pm, ABC iview and at abc.net.au/4corners.

WHAT CAN CONSUMERS DO?

The disturbing accounts in the report have provoked a backlash against some of the companies who use produce from the suppliers mentioned including Covino, tomato grower D’VineRipe as well as Baiada Chicken, which produces Steggles and Lilydale chickens.

Many of these companies took to Twitter to voice their concern over the report and ensuring consumers that they are taking measures to rectify these problems, including an investigation into the misconduct and mistreatment of their workers.

However, when asked whether it was possible to identify those growers who were doing the right thing, Peter Hockings, executive officer of the Bundaberg Fruit and Vegetable Growers, told news.com.au that this was difficult because compliant growers may be unknowingly using non-compliant contractors as they were often adept at evasion.

“I wish it was as simple as naming those doing the right thing but it’s not,” Mr Hockings said.

While retailers such as supermarkets and fast food chains should not be absolved of responsibility, he said that a meaningful government crackdown was the one thing that could make the biggest difference.

“This is a very, very complex scenario but if the government is not able to enforce (its regulations) then why should it be the responsibility of everyone in the supply chain to take it on themselves to regulate?” Mr Hockings said.

“The majority of growers are doing the right thing and a minority are rorting the system.

“Ultimately it is the government department’s responsibility to enforce the regulations.”

The Assistant Minister for Immigration announced that volunteer work under the working holiday visa program would no longer count as eligible work to qualify for a second visa.

At the moment people aged 18 to 30 from certain countries can holiday and work in Australia for up to 12 months, and then extend their stay by a further year if they do at least three months work in certain agricultural, mining or construction roles in regional Australia.

In a statement, Ms Cash said the Fair Work Ombudsman also had a team operating across Australia investigating working conditions.

What can we do?

In addition to lobbying, we can also help take action by selecting and purchasing only Fair Trade products. We encourage you to take part in Fairtrade Australia’s Fair Trade Fortnight. Also be sure to select and purchase only Fair Trade products; you can find a list of products or suppliers using Fairtrade Australia’s Fairtrade Certified Product Search.

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2 Responses to How Can We Avoid ‘Slave’ Food?

  1. Mary M says:

    Its appalling that this is happening in Australia. I try to make an effort to support things made or grown in Australia to avoid ‘slave’ good, but its even more difficult when its happening here.
    Thanks for this article.

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