unions wage stagnation
(Image: AAP)

When it come to exploitive industries, few can match the horticulture sector.

About 40% of employers in the sector steal wages, the Fair Work Ombudsman says, and a lot more fail to keep proper records. Many, especially in the Wide Bay region in Queensland, are serial offenders, with nearly half of previous perpetrators continuing to breach workplace laws.

The sector relies heavily on labour hire firms, which frequently engage in phoenixing, competing to rip off workers as much as possible, and migrant workers exploiting the government’s loose onshore visa process and undermining the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

And even in an industry notorious for sexual harassment, horticulture stands out for exploiting and harassing young women.

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But the ready source of easily exploited labour — migrant workers — has dried up, leaving it to redouble its longstanding complaints that it can’t attract enough workers.

The market response to not being able to attract enough workers is to pay more. That’s what most employers have to do to retain and attract staff.

But the industry has urged the government to force people into horticulture by cutting back JobSeeker payments, which are said to deter people from going bush to travel the “harvest trail”. It also wants borders reopened for temporary migrants and incentives for backpackers to stay longer.

One Liberal MP, John Alexander, reportedly wants to conscript young people for fruitpicking. Realising the bad optics of this, he says he’d settle for cutting off JobSeeker payments to young people who refuse to pick fruit.

Presumably that would apply to women facing sexual harassment as well?

The government’s response is to announce it will use taxpayer money to “incentivise” young people to “have a crack” at horticulture.

Except it’s announced exactly that before — an incentive scheme in 2018 “aimed at increasing the number of eligible jobseekers who undertake horticultural seasonal work”.

“Jobseekers on taxpayer support have no excuse to refuse opportunities,” Scott Morrison said at the time, only to be criticised by the National Farmers’ Federation for offering a “shallow approach to a deep problem”.

The critics were vindicated when the program was a failure. That evidently hasn’t deterred the government from “having a crack” again.

In addition to the surge of temporary workers horticulture groups want, addressing the “deep problem” might involve dealing with clearly systemic problems around labour hire firms and their exploitation of workers, and a culture of exploitation among a large minority of farmers — who, of course, make life more difficult for farmers committed to doing the right thing and treating workers fairly.

It reflects a mindset that workplace problems are always because of workers, who need to either be incentivised or coerced into complying with employers’ needs.

The extent to which the Coalition remains in the grip of this sort of thinking is reflected in the absurd lengths to which Morrison is going to beat up a fairly trivial dispute between logistic firm Qube’s Patrick Terminals and what’s left of the Maritime Union of Australia.

Morrison’s claim that 40 ships are parked off Port Botany — “You can go down to Port Botany or down to Kurnell and have a look out there and you can see them lining up” — is an egregious lie even by the low standards of the prime minister, as Michael Pascoe points out.

So too is his claim that medical supplies are being held up, a claim rejected even by the head of Patrick’s.

NSW Finance and Small Business Minister and morals campaigner Damien Tudehope lashed “militant unions” and poor productivity. Oddly enough, crane rates across Australia’s major ports were at an all-time high in 2019, according to the government’s own statistics.

As for union militancy, strikes are almost non-existent in Australia. This year, according to ABS data, days lost per 1000 workers to strike action fell to 0.3 days in the March quarter and 0.1 in the June quarter. Twenty years ago the comparable figures were 19.4 and 22.6. Even in the transport sector, directly affected by the Maritime Union of Australia action, the figure was 1.6 days.

The highest figure in transport in recent years was the March 2019 quarter when 12.1 days per 1000 workers were lost. That would have been a quiet quarter across the entire economy in the Howard years.

One look at wages growth since the Coalition was elected will tell you we need a lot more, not less, union militancy. We need more strikes, not fewer. We need more workers engaging in industrial disputes, and forcing concessions from employers. Nothing else, it seems, is going to lift wages growth, and therefore strengthen demand.

Indeed, if the horticulture sector had a stronger union presence, if it had a “militant” union like the MUA or the CFMEU, it’s likely there’d be a lot less wage theft, exploitation and routine sexual harassment. It might even be an industry that didn’t need the government to bribe or coerce people to work in it.