While the Reserve Bank says over and over that wages growth needs to lift substantially, the government continues to do its best to enable employers to undercut wages growth. This time it’s in Australia’s most exploitive industry after the sex industry: fruit-picking.

Australia’s horticulture industry is now a by-word for exploitation, wage theft, sexual assault and harassment — almost invariably of young foreign workers holidaying here, or temporary migrants here under labour agreements, or the large number of illegal entrants that arrived from countries like Malaysia when Peter Dutton lost control of our borders as Home Affairs minister.

Boris Johnson demanded that Australia dump its requirement that working holidaymakers work for 88 days in the agriculture sector after case after case after case after case of murder, rape, theft and exploitation emerged from the horticulture sector in recent years, often reported in UK and foreign media outlets. The only problem is that it will take five years to phase out. How many backpackers will be murdered, raped, harassed or ripped off between now and 2026?

The phase-out is because the government’s policy of forcing holidaymakers to work in conditions often akin to slavery and exploitation is crucial for the horticulture industry’s business model of cheap, easily exploited labour, preferably with limited capacity to complain.

As a result, the government had its ducks in a row yesterday and announced, simultaneous with the UK free trade deal that ditched the 88-day requirement, a new agriculture visa targeted at ASEAN countries, with the Nationals’ David Littleproud taking the credit.

If UK and European backpackers have the language skills to effectively communicate how they’ve been treated, or might be willing to seek help when they’re abused, people from non-English speaking backgrounds and less developed countries, who are here for economic rather than recreational reasons, will be far easier to exploit. They’re less likely to know to whom to complain, less likely to know their rights, less likely to be able to find out, and more fearful of the consequences of losing their job. The new visa won’t even have the kind of protections that the current visa category targeted at workers from Pacific Island nations have.

Thwarted in its ability to exploit UK holidaymakers, the horticulture industry might come out ahead with a workforce less likely to reveal the abuse and exploitation it subjects its workers to.

All of this is justified by the government and by the industry with the insistence that it can’t “incentivise” Australians to do this work.

“Australians don’t want to do this work,” Littleproud said yesterday. “Young people now want to … work in a pub or be a barista in their school holidays.”

While it’s a worry that Littleproud seems to think bars employ schoolkids, it’s unclear whether the incentives he means include being forced to raid supermarket dumpsters for food, as happened to one underpaid fruitpicker, or being bullied or sexually harassed — the kind of detail to be found in a report released just this week on the colossal extent of exploitation and wage theft in the industry. That report suggests 80% of workers experienced underpayment, with some on as little as $10 a day.

That’s after years of investigations and prosecutions by the Fair Work Ombudsman and umpteen pious pronouncements from industry bodies and the National Farmers Federation about addressing abuse and exploitation. Despite all the evidence of exploitation, much of the media continues to run the industry line about lazy Australians, and fruit going to waste because of labour shortages.

Littleproud was keen to claim yesterday that the new visa would be in place by the end of the year (that is, the industry could continue to exploit UK backpackers while accessing a new pool of exploitable labour). Indeed, a big problem, he insisted, was that the states were not going to let workers in immediately due to COVID restrictions.

But that means the industry will be able to avoid the simple solution that will address labour shortages — increasing wages to a point where they can attract workers. That’s the usual market solution when shortages occur. It’s also what the Reserve Bank has been calling for for years now.