(Image: AAP/Tim Marsden)

What Yaya saw on the farms should make you scared.

“I used to work with a contractor who underpaid me,” she said. “I saw a lot of bad things happen on the farm. No hygiene, no security, no toilet and no place to wash your hands.”

For five months, the migrant worker from Malaysia (who declined to give her full name) picked fruit and vegetables in farms across Victoria. Now she’s worried about the safety of migrant workers during the pandemic. Like in Singapore, they could be hit hard by a second virus wave.

Since March, Australians have been in lockdown, told to observe strict social distancing guidelines and maintain good hygiene. But for thousands of migrant farm labourers, whose essential work is what keeps our supermarket shelves stocked, none of this is possible.

Instead, they must keep working, often for below the minimum wage in crowded, unsanitary conditions without any protective gear, hoping the virus doesn’t reach them.

The silent scourge

“When we came to Australia, we’d been promised that someone would help us. They’d give us ‘everything like Visa, workplace, and a job’,” Yaya says.

“We believed that when we came. But it’s all lies.”

When she was picking fruit, Yaya was paid between $5 and $6 for each box she filled. She’d usually get through 10 boxes in a full day of work, 15 on a good day. A report from the United Workers Union found workers were paid an average of $14.23 an hour, under the minimum wage. 

Contractors will often charge workers for accommodation, transport, visa applications and food, money that is deducted from their pay. 

But Yaya is one of the luckier ones. She no longer works on the farms. And unlike most people she worked with, she has a visa.

It’s estimated there are around 100,000 undocumented migrants working in Australia’s horticulture sector, although the true number could be much higher.

Some are people who’ve had their application for a protection visa rejected. Others might be on tourist or student visas with limited eligibility to work. 

The ubiquity of underpaid, largely undocumented migrant workers in our fruit and vegetable supply chain is Australian horticulture’s darkest and worst kept secret; a byproduct of a supermarket duopoly desperate to keep prices down. 

Joanna Howe, an associate professor in law at the University of Adelaide, told Crikey Australia’s horticulture sector is “structurally reliant” on undocumented migrant labour.

A labyrinthine network of unscrupulous labour-hire contractors lure people from countries like Malaysia with the promise of steady money and a better life working on Australian farms.

But many growers say they’ve become so dependent on undocumented workers that there’s no alternative labour force to turn to if they wanted to do the right thing.

A report put together by Howe and her colleagues found in some regions like Mildura and Robinvale, a majority of workers were undocumented. 

The next crisis?

The pandemic leaves undocumented workers terrified for their future. Sanmati Verma, a labour lawyer who is an organiser with Undocumented Migrants Solidarity, says all the issues undocumented migrants face — systematic underpayment, extortion by labour contractors, extremely poor living and work conditions — are compounded by the spread of COVID-19.

Singapore, once the envy of the world for its handling of the pandemic, gives us a look at what an outbreak could mean for horticulture workers.

Its curve seemed to have flattened. Then the virus hit the country’s forgotten people — the low-wage migrant workers living in cramped, unsanitary rooms, whose essential services kept the city state running.

Nearly 90% of all coronavirus cases in Singapore are among migrant workers.

Workers on Australian farms often have similarly risky living arrangements, and their situation has the potential to be the epicentre of a second pandemic wave.

Yaya recalls regularly seeing up to six people sharing a bedroom. Since farms are remote, unscrupulous contractors tend to control workers’ living arrangements. 

“Because these workers are living under the radar and need to avoid detection, they don’t have access to the same housing pool as other migrants,” Howe says.

“This means they’re heavily reliant on a contractor to provide them with accommodation which is often substandard and unhygienic. We’ve seen videos and photos where they’re infested with rats.”

The risk of deportation and lack of medicare also means undocumented migrant workers would have little incentive to seek medical help, or even get tested for COVID-19. And with borders closed, flights prohibitively expensive and many workers in debt bondage to the contractors that brought them over, there’s no way home.  

But while these workers are some of Australia’s most vulnerable, and right now, perhaps some of our most essential, they’ve been totally left out of all pandemic support packages.

JobKeeper excludes most migrant workers, and while several states, most recently Victoria, have provided support packages covering other temporary migrants including international students and asylum seekers, there’s nothing for undocumented workers,

Verma suggests undocumented migrants should be given access to guaranteed healthcare and guaranteed income support. Yaya, meanwhile, hopes the government will listen and recognise horticulture workers’ huge contribution to keeping food on the table during the pandemic. 

“I hope that during this pandemic time, the government will not leave any workers behind,”  Yaya says.

“We are working here, we are contributing to this country. I think this country has to support them. The government has to give them an amnesty visa. Give them medicare, healthcare, so they can work without getting sick. At least it’s better than nothing.”