The Guardian Australia
Seasonal work on Australia’s farms: ‘No one wants to do this sort of work’
Weary eyes, boots on dew, a sea of oversized high-vis vests and little conversation.
After a few hours there is a hive of activity, chatter in a flurry of languages, and sweat. Then in the early afternoon or sometimes later, a tired shuffle back to vans and cars. This is the life of a grape picker in Margaret River, Western Australia.
It is a wonderful job, in truth. The hours are nice: 5.30am until around 2pm, with the rest of the afternoon to surf, or drink, or both. The “office” is generally one of a few famous vineyards you have probably heard of. Stunning backdrops with the sun on your back. Physically demanding, but rewarding and enjoyable.
Yet this idyllic job description belies the fact that there are serious issues in Australia’s supply chain. That is, no one wants to do this sort of work. Governments have for years papered over cracks when it comes to finding the labour to work on farms and vineyards. And now, with the pandemic exposing these fault lines, something has to give.
For the last two months I’ve been picking grapes under the harsh glare of the Western Australian sun and Margaret River is as good a place to do this as any. Aside from a breathtakingly beautiful stretch of coastline, picking grapes for wine has a reputation for being easier work than others. I have worked hard and for the most part, been paid fairly and treated likewise. If you’re after a story on an exploited worker, this isn’t it.
Nevertheless, it was hard and hot work in Australia’s south-west corner. It was here I met a 19-year-old surfer from Perth who lasted less than a week on the vines, where bending your back is not an expression, but a necessary physical function. He said he could get easier work and about the same pay at
the bakery near his home. Who is to blame him?
The Relocation Assistance to Take up a Job program planned to combat this, a financial incentive in the shape of a reimbursement designed to lure Australians to rural areas to help with various harvests. Figures of an extra $6,000 were bandied around. Deputy prime minister Michael McCormack told young Australians they might meet the love of their life, and at the very least they’d have some great Instagram content. Who could resist this?
Plenty, apparently. It was always going to be a tough ask to plug a pandemic-sized hole but the reality is this incentive has failed miserably. As of 31 March, only 871have received remuneration.
Hamish, a 25-year-old from Perth, spent eight weeks living out of his car, working 6am to 1pm on the vines and then 2pm to 10pm at a brewery in town. Despite satisfying the requirements comfortably, he decided against applying for the incentive.
“It’s a lot of work, and I don’t know, I feel like the time that I spend trying to apply for it, I could probably just spend that time working and earn the same money,” he said.
This was a sentiment shared by Rowan, 19-year-old film student sharing a single campsite between four of his mates – “too complicated”.
“It’s too much effort and at the end of the day, you can go through the whole thing and you don’t know if you’re going to get it or not.”
He’s got a point. My correspondence with Harvest Trail Information Services (HTIS) began in mid-December 2020, where I was referred to the MADEC employment service. A lengthy emailbased relationship was formed. Along with the usual tax forms and bank details, I was attempting to get accommodation quotes from caravan parks on official letterheads with ABN and business name (no mean feat). I sent copies of my driver’s license, two passports, a medicare card and even debit cards, all in the name of bureaucratic identification.
I have worked in the civil service before and am no stranger to paperwork, but this was another level.
The critical thing is this: when I started picking grapes, and indeed even when I had finished, I had absolutely no clue as to whether I would receive the incentive.
There is no incentive to work if the incentives themselves are no certainty to be awarded. By definition, it’s not really an incentive, but a gamble. The federal government is asking “lazy” Australians to take a financial and personal bet, asking them to relocate three hours away from family and friends, outlay $200 a week upfront on accommodation, some more still on fuel, placing their trust in farmers and employment services they have never heard of or met. These are individuals most likely on a low income or no income at all, individuals that are able to afford this sort of gamble least of anyone.
At 28 years old I was somewhere in the middle of an eccentric cast that included school leavers, travelling drifters and grey nomads. A high volume of South Americans meant Spanish was the main language (and reggaeton the main sound from Bluetooth speakers) but there was European, African and Asian influence as well. An Indonesian in her mid-50s garnered minor fame for picking at a scarcely believable rate.
An Ernst and Young report from late last year suggests Australia has an estimated shortage of 26,000 workers. Crops have been left to rot or ploughed into mulch. The National Lost Crop Register is currently estimating losses of over $52m worth of fresh fruit and vegetables across the country.
In Margaret River the situation is not as bad, but some growers were still resorting to asking family and friends for help, and as a last resort, machinepicking old and valuable vines.
The shortage exacerbates a labour supply that was already on edge, according to industry expert Dr Joanna Howe, who has led several major research projects examining the labour issue in horticulture.
“I feel a lot of sympathy for growers who haven’t been given the framework to create a sustainable workforce,” she says.
“There’s always that price war between retailers too. When there are stories of exploitation come out you actually have supermarkets and retailers crack down harder on growers, putting greater pressure on them to do the right thing, but without allowing any give on the price of fresh fruit and vegetables.”
Howe says supply chain pressure, as well as issues with regulation, lead to the sort of exploitation stories the industry is infamous for.
“The weight of research shows though that the industry has a genuine problem with compliance of labour standards and the system as it is allows workers to be exploited,” she says.
“We’ve seen time and time again, it’s the migrant workers that are the ones to come up shortest when it comes to wages.”
Debate continues to rage on the merits of paying fruit pickers an hourly wage or by-piece rate (the more you pick, the more you earn). It sounds like an honourable idea but in practice, exploitation can occur if piece rates are manipulated unfairly.
A recent report from Unions New South Wales claimed some farm workers are earning as little as $1.25 an hour.
My first day on the job was on a hilly vineyard with a great deal of diseased and unusable grapes, where I slaved away for eight hours and filled a total of 13 buckets. Had I been on the standard piece rate of $3 per bucket of grapes, I would have received $39 before tax for my efforts, and surely wouldn’t have returned the next day.
As it were, I was on the minimum casual hourly rate ($25.15), and kept coming back for the next eight weeks, getting faster and more efficient every day.
Not everyone is as lucky.
Twenty-eight-year-old German, Nini, came to Australia with an impressive background in the corporate world, and on the hunt for adventure. She described minor exploitation as almost part and parcel of being a backpacker.
She had glowing things to say about work as a farmhand on stations in north Queensland and NSW, and as a cook in Albany. When it came to fruit picking, Nini’s experience was a nightmare.
Working at a berry farm in Queensland to fulfil visa requirements, she knew her and her fellow backpackers were being ripped off but carried on anyway, knowing that after three months of farm work she would not need to do it again.
“It is so difficult sometimes when you are on the piece rate,” she said.
“We would receive between $0.39 and $0.55 per punnet. Sometimes we have good days and sometimes we can work all day for 10 hours and do only 90 punnets ($35 to $49.50) because of the rain and the scrubs.
“We all know this is happening but this is how it is. At least we were all together. We make the three months for our visa and then we leave.
“I’m grateful for it as it changed my life and opened my eyes to the process of food production.”
Picking fruit is hardly the only job in Australia where there are issues surrounding underpayment to workers, but it does seem like it’s the only industry where underpayment is accepted as “part of the deal”.
The Australian Workers Union (AWU) is currently pushing to change the horticulture award so that there is a minimum wage for pickers, something opposition leader Anthony Albanese has thrown his support behind.
Leading Margaret River winery Vasse Felix are a good case study for a minimum wage. Chief viticulturist Bart Molony guaranteed his workers the minimum casual wage over harvest but offered piece rates for those that picked enough to go beyond the base rate.
“It worked bloody well,” he said.
“The key with piece rate is that it needs to be achievable. Then you’re rewarding a good worker.
“When it comes unstuck is when people use it to try and save money, not trying to get better value for the same amount.”
Vasse Felix employ their workers directly, rather than through a labour hire company.
“They become part of Vasse Felix, and we just feel that’s important,” Molony said.
“It’s a lot of work and a lot of management but it means we’re able to pay better than we would if we went through a labour hire company.
“It gives us the freedom to set that rate fairly.”
A 2019 report from Howe and the University of Adelaide included 22 recommendations designed to reduce worker exploitation, all of which the federal government accepted in principle. Implementing some of these recommendations seems an obvious way to start. Regulation of the industry through visa changes is another step the government can take.
But responsibility rests too with each step of the chain, including consumers, says Howe.
“There is absolutely an obligation on consumers to be more aware from where their fruit and veg is coming from,” Howe said.
“Buying direct from farmers’ markets and the like, and putting pressure on supermarket retailers to be accountable as ethical supply chains.
“There are a lot of verbal commitments to stamping out exploitation, but very little monetary investment or a commitment to raising prices or accepting lower profits.”
Farmers too are accountable. Support for a minimum rate is mixed.
“People bang on about if you ask for hourly, you’re lazy,” says 26-year-old Liverpudlian Dylan one night over an Emu Export.
“I just want to rock up to the farm tomorrow, and know I’m going to be paid a certain amount at the very least.
“I just don’t reckon that’s too much to ask?”
It’s not really an incentive, but a gamble.