Foreign Farm Workers Exploited: Woolworths “Morally Responsible”

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Many foreign fruit pickers are fearful of complaining of bad treatment because they need contractors to sign off on visa extensions. Image: couriermail.com.au

Backpackers and foreign farm workers in Queensland’s Lockyer Valley have reported being sexually harassed, underpaid and forced to work in slave-like conditions. What’s worse is that many of these workers are fearful of speaking out against this abuse because they need the contractors to sign off on visa extensions.

The Courier Mail had reported of incidents in which workers have been asked for money or sexual favours in return for having their 417 visa extension signed.

The Anti-Discrimination Commission Queensland community relations officer Caron Menashe tells,

“We’ve had police tell us of reports of sexual assault and rape but they haven’t been able to do anything because (the victims) have been too afraid to press charges, and they’re even too afraid to come to us with a complaint.”

Earlier this month, we had a Blog post about the ABC Four Corners program which revealed the exploitation of foreign workers on farms.

Since this report, supermarket chains Coles and Woolworths have been under pressure to ensure that their supply chain is ethical. Woolworths says it does not know of any legal obligation to ensure farm workers are not exploited, but it does have a moral one.

Appearing before a senate inquiry into Australia’s temporary work visa program, Woolworths said it was not up to it to enforce the law.

The head of corporate responsibility at Woolworths, Armineh Mardirossian, was asked whether Woolworths has a legal obligation to make sure conditions and wages are being met.

“We expect that they are met. I’m not a legal expert, so I really can’t answer that question,” Ms Mardirossian said.

The company’s head of trade relations, Ian Dunn, says Woolies should be morally responsible to ensure the safety of their workers,

“We would certainly agree that we have a moral responsibility to ensure that suppliers to us first of all understand the conditions on which we’re willing to accept supply and to trade with them and then, secondly, to ensure that they’re aware that they need to live up to those standards,” Mr Dunn said.

However Woolworths has yet to have a meeting with the National union of Workers to discuss these issues.

Union organiser George Robertson told the inquiry supermarkets can do more.

“Our position is that every single thing that makes it onto the shelves of Woolworths and Coles or any other supermarket should be guaranteed to be produced ethically,” said Mr Robertson.

The union wants federal legislation to create a licensing system and greater regulation for labour hire companies.

The Federal Government has confirmed that it will begin a taskforce to target visa fraud.

The Anti-Discrimination Commission Queensland says police have been unable to act on repo

The issue is very concerning for workers, especially foreign workers. There has been conclusive evidence of extreme exploitation, slave-like conditions and abusive workplaces found on farms and factories around Australia; many of which supply the major supermarkets and fast food chains we buy from.

How does it affect the food we eat and the products we buy?

The National Union of Workers said that almost all the fresh produce and poultry we buy and consume has passed through the hands of exploited worker.

Our major supermarkets such as Coles and Woolworths rely on vast quantities of locally-sourced products, particularly fruit, vegetables and meat.

However, despite these chains claiming the support ethical labour, they often fail to properly investigate how their suppliers are sourcing and processing their produce.

There is no comprehensive system of checking whether suppliers are adhering to minimum Australian labour standards because the books of the labour-hire contractors are not inspected or audited.

Furthermore, these contractors who exploit their workers are generally hard to track or confront, as many operate in a black market economy paying their workers in cash – frequently less than the minimum wage and what they are entitled to.

Key individuals are often known only by their first name. There are no pay slips and no employment contracts.

Often these contractors advertise using fake names and contact numbers on advertising sites such as Gumtree, Facebook and Asian job boards.

How do these contractors operate?

Farmers do not always directly employ the workers on their farm. In many cases they employ a middle man, or labour-hire contractor, who sources the workers themselves.

In most cases, labour-hire contractors will organise the transportation, recruitment, paperwork and accommodation for their workers, relieving the farmer of administrative burdens.

The farmer will pay the workers’ wages to the labour-hire contractor, who is then supposed to pass the wages in full on to the workers, leaving workers at risk of exploitation.

How should we act?

A solution to the issue of exploitation of foreign farmers is complex and it involves issues of both immigration and labor rights. One possible solution that has been raised by Dr. Joanna Howe from the University of Adelaide Law School, is to consider a new “low-skilled work visa,” which would expose industry to government regulation.

Fair Food Agreement

Fair Food Agreement

The National Union of Workers have begun a campaign to help Australia commit to ethical and fair food sourcing.

Your signed petition will be forwarded to Coles and Woolworths urging them to commit to the fair food compact to protect workers throughout their supply chain.

Find out more here.

Without the urgent action and active participation of workers and unions, people will continue to be exploited and living in abusive environments for poverty-like wages.

The NUA illustrates the solutions to farming exploitation, these are:

  1. Stronger workplace protections. Existing labour standards on farms have failed to ensure that workers’ rights are protected. Producers need to sit down with the union to ensure that stronger standards are in place to ensure workers are paid correct wages and entitlements, and have their health and safety protected.
  2. Worker empowerment. Workers must be empowered to enforce fair labour conditions on their farms. Producers must allow the union to provide workplace rights training to all workers to ensure workers understand their rights and have access to the support they need to enforce them. Workers who speak up must be supported and be free from fear of retaliation.
  3. Stop the use of dodgy labour hire contractors. The widespread use of unscrupulous labor hire operators has driven exploitation on farms and must end immediately. Labour Hire operators on farms should be licensed and regulated. Producers must work with the union to ensure they replace existing dodgy contractors with reputable providers who will pay workers the correct entitlements and ensure they are not punished for raising problems.

Tell us your story. Please share with us your experiences of ‘work culture’ by writing 250-500 words and emailing eliza.cruse@ycw.org.au. Alternatively, you can follow this link to Survey Monkey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/H8N397M

By submitting your story to the AYCW, you are giving permission for your story to be shared amongst leaders of the YCW in preparation for our National ROLWA Gathering. 
Please direct any queries to our National Secretary, Eliza Cruse, at eliza.cruse@ycw.org.au 

 

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