It’s out in the heat and the dust of Australia’s farms that this country’s broken visa system can best be viewed. That’s where the cheap, exploitable, often illegal labour is picking and packing the fruit and vegetables that end up on the shelves of Coles and Woolworths, where over 50% of Australians buy their fresh produce.

These two giant retailers have perfected the art of delivering consumers with produce at “low, low prices” — and what’s not to like about low prices? Plenty, as far as some suppliers and farm workers are concerned.

Far from the bounty of the overflowing fruit barrels and images of smiling farmers adorning supermarket walls, the pressure to keep prices low has made its way down to the suppliers, the fruit and veg producers and farmers who compete, mainly on price, for contracts with the duopoly. And because the cost of hired labour is consistently the largest cash component for fruit and vegetable growers, it’s that process in the food chain that incentivises producers to grind down their cost of labour.

The result? Far too many arrangements that see labourers held in slave-like conditions, paid a paltry wage and at risk of serious injury or death. An inquiry by the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) last year reported that there had been 82 deaths in the crop, fruit, vegetable and flower growing industries in the decade to 2016. Instances of exploitation have been regularly exposed by the media and followed up by the authorities, yet it persists and even thrives.

Today, there’s a new report released — this time from the National Union of Workers (NUW) — that details the continuing exploitation of temporary labour. The union has documented the experiences of 650 temporary migrants picking and packing fruit across Sunraysia and the Goulburn Valley in the high season of April and May. Most are from south-east Asia and the Pacific, with the single biggest group from Malaysia.

The survey finds:

  • An average hourly wage of $14.80 before tax.
  • Two-thirds earn below the casual, minimum rate of $23.66 an hour, with some wages as low as $4.60 an hour.
  • 68% work for cash paid by a labour contractor or sub-contractor.
  • A group of 10 workers in a rural area could expect to pay $150 per person per week for a share house, leaving them each with as little as $100-200 in take-home pay per week.
  • Only a few get pay slips, PAYG tax or superannuation.
  • Only 33% report holding a valid work visa.

The survey paints a dire picture of exploitation and fear where labour syndicates control every part of a worker’s life from dawn to dusk, and extract high fees for accommodation and transport. All workers report facing racism, violence and abuse, either at the hands of farmers or labour contractors. (The majority of those taking part in the survey are, unusually for migrant farm workers, members of the union).

Putri Nazeri, who came to Australia from Malaysia three years ago, explains the level of control she was subject to when she worked picking baby broccoli at a farm in Bairnsdale, East Gippsland. “There were no toilets in the field, the nearest one was 10 minutes drive away,” Nazeri said in the NUW survey. “We were working 10 hour shifts at the time, and it was getting towards the end of the day. I went to my contractor, Vincent, and said I needed to go to the toilet. He told me that I needed to wait until after work, or I could just go in the field. Vincent had a lot of control of us — he had the car we all relied on, he owned the house we all lived in, he even controlled when we went to the shops. Now he wanted to control when we went to the toilet.”

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A majority of people interviewed by the NUW work on farms that currently supply Coles and Woolworths. The duopoly, argues the union, has the power to help end exploitation on farms with new supply chain agreements that “require worker certification of suppliers, allow worker education and dispute resolution, price their supply contracts to allow fair wages, and join farmers and the union in advocating for a fair visa system”.

Migration lawyer and NUW adviser Sanmati Verma is even more blunt. “I think the supermarket duopoly in Australia, and the downward price pressure that creates, is the reason for this entire mess. It is the reason why farmers get squeezed on price in such an intense way, that there’s essentially a cartelisation of the way that price works, that it’s agreed between the two major providers, and that it’s fixed, and that it’s driven downwards.”

This is not about the NUW wanting to create “this fictional figure of the demonic Australian farmer who’s out to exploit migrant workers,” she said — “it’s just an economic system that’s geared towards keeping prices down for Australian consumers at the expense of people who are right at the bottom of the supply chain, really”.

Coles and Woolworths declined to speak with INQ. But as public and political pressure has escalated, they have ramped up action on auditing their supply chains. Woolworths recently implemented new accreditation systems that create a register of approved labour-hire providers. However, company shareholders also voted down a push in February this year to mandate that the NUW be involved in educating workers at suppliers’ sites.

Meanwhile, Coles and Aldi require all suppliers to register on the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange (or Sedex) and complete a risk assessment. The union argues that this is no more than an honour system where random audits apply to only a handful of suppliers.

But it’s not just the unions who are agitating for action — so are many farmers. Emma Germano, a vice-president of the Victorian Farmers Federation, is one powerful farming voice to argue that the major supermarkets bear responsibility for the entrenched use of exploited labour. Suppliers who obey the labour laws, she says, are paying “far above” the average market rate for labour and not receiving the same profit margin. “Coles and Woolworths are still using a buying system that means that people [bid by] tender and it’s a race to the bottom,” she said.

According to Germano, Australian retailers make the highest profit margin in the world on selling fresh fruit and vegetables. She estimates that the retailers set a minimum 80-100% mark-up on the goods they purchase from suppliers, a statistic Coles and Woolies declined to comment on.

A third-generation farmer running her family’s mixed operation in Gippsland’s Mirboo North, Germano has grown up with the personalities who dominate the farming industry. She implicitly understands both sides of the coin: how profits are made, and how ethical and moral lines govern and blur the industry.

Two years ago, Germano made an extraordinary public apology to migrant farm workers at a rural forum hosted by the Salvation Army in support of anti-slavery laws. “Honestly, on behalf of the Australian farming industry, I’d actually like to apologise on behalf of those farmers who couldn’t think of anything worse than taking advantage of somebody else and want nothing more than to be able to share their wealth they make on their farms,” she said.

And she takes aim at the periodic police “crackdowns” on illegal labour: “There’s just a hypocrisy there that’s outrageous, and we as an industry have been playing into it by allowing Border Force to come onto one farm at a time, pick up a couple of undocumented workers, [and] put it into the local and national newspapers that they’re doing their job, when in reality that’s just not the case.”

The cash economy that has traditionally ruled in the fruit and vegetable sector, combined with a chaotic visa system, has produced a dangerous subculture that’s taking place beyond the gaze of consumers in supermarket aisles.

At the end of 2016, Border Force raids on farms in Koo Wee Rup, south-east of Melbourne shook Victoria’s farming community. The farms were owned by Joe Vizzari, one of Australia’s largest asparagus and baby broccoli growers and then-president of the Australian Asparagus Council. Vizzari, who supplied 70% of his crop to the major supermarkets, had been honoured as the Weekly Times’ Farmer of the Year at an event attended by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.

Investigators found 61 “unlawful non-citizens”, including 36 from Indonesia and 22 from Malaysia, working on Vizzari’s farms. Another 28 people were working in breach of their visa conditions. Investigators also seized more than $400,000 in cash after an Australian Border Force (ABF) dog sniffed out the money hidden behind a wall panel and “contained within two safes at premises belonging to a labour hire intermediary,” according to the ABF.

Two years later, at the end of 2018, three workers were arrested on charges that they facilitated the illegal labour hiring. Police also seized more than $3.7 million in assets from the three, including properties valued at $2.95 million, a Mercedes SUV, bank accounts containing $230,000 and $580,000 in cash.

INQ’s inquiries also show there are unanswered questions surrounding a separate incident, the apparent murder of a farm worker in Noble Park, Melbourne, in 2014. A 52-year-old woman, Geck Gov, was stabbed to death at dawn on her driveway as she prepared to drive herself and colleagues to work at Coolibah Herbs, a major supplier of herbs and lettuce. Gov was known to carry large amounts of cash and jewelry. Victorian police called her killing a botched robbery by someone who “knew her movements”. Five years on, the crime remains unsolved.

Among the clues was a white Hiace van recorded by CCTV about 200 metres away from the scene within minutes of the stabbing. The white Hiace is the transportation of choice for labour contractors working in Australian horticulture, though police are unable to say for sure that the van was linked to Gov’s death.

Sources in the local Cambodian-Australian community have told INQ that Gov was a so-called “cash contractor” — someone who helps contract other casual labour — at Coolibah Herbs, where she supplied casual workers in an industry entirely reliant on migrant labour. The sources claim she was in danger because she had been poaching workers from rival contractors and that one of them hired two workers from another farm to kill her. INQ has been told that the two men were questioned by Victoria Police (who have not yet confirmed the interviews took place) but were released because of insufficient evidence and fled to Cambodia or Vietnam.

What’s the solution to the crisis of exploited illegal migrant workers in Australia? Emma Germano advocates for a visa amnesty to bring the workers and the issue out of the shadows.

But she concedes the federal government has little appetite for either extending an olive branch or “flushing out” all illegal workers. Why? Because without these workers, “I think they know the country could be in some kind of economic crisis, when you’ll see not just the agriculture industry fall over but other sectors too.”

NEXT IN THE SERIES: The government’s role in perpetuating migrant worker misery.