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To End Hyperexploitation, Seasonal Workers Need Union Solidarity

In October, Australia introduced a new visa for seasonal agricultural workers that is supposed to create pathways to permanent residency. But history shows that seasonal workers can only guarantee their rights if they're organized into fighting unions.

A seasonal worker harvests Valencia oranges from a tree at an orchard near Griffith, New South Wales, Australia. (David Gray / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

On October 1 of this year, the federal government announced a new agricultural worker visa designed to give Australian farmers access to laborers from countries that are part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Known as the “Ag Visa,” the new arrangement is supposed to complement existing visa arrangements, like the Seasonal Workers’ Program (SWP) and the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS). More specifically, it is supposed to compensate for the shortfall of laborers that resulted from recent changes to the Working Holiday Maker following recent negotiations concluded between Australia and the UK.

The federal minister for agriculture, David Littleproud, declared that this constitutes the “biggest structural change to agricultural workforce in our nation’s history.” What makes it so vastly different from the SWP and PLS is that it not only grants workers a limited ability to move between employers, but also a pathway to permanent residency. However, Michele O’Neill from the Australian Council of Trade Unions has condemned the arrangement as introducing a “second-class workforce.”

While these fears are well grounded, the new arrangements may also open opportunities for union organization and industrial action. Indeed, there are some signs that the tide is beginning to turn for agricultural workers in Australia. In November, the Fair Work Commission ruled to abolish piece rates in the horticultural sector, guaranteeing that thousands of workers who were systematically underpaid will now receive the minimum wage. To push the struggle even further, and protect against the creation of a new population of hyperexploited migrant workers, unions should look to the successful models of organization already operating in the sector.

The Labor Shortage Myth

Deregulation of agricultural production reached its peak in the mid-1990s. Since then, Australian farmers have increasingly depended on low-paid temporary migrant workers with either fewer rights, or a diminished ability to defend their rights. In the 2000s, both Labor and Liberal governments introduced changes accelerating this trend.

Kevin Rudd’s Labor government introduced the SWP in 2009, while Scott Morrison’s Liberal government introduced the PLS in 2018. They argued these schemes were necessary because Australian farmers faced a perennial “labor shortage,” and were in particular need of pickers and packers during harvest seasons.

This was never the case. As Iain Campbell of the University of Melbourne points out, there never has been a “labor shortage” as we would understand it. To the contrary, the Australian economy has plenty of disposable labor power. In her response to the Ag Visa, Michele O’Neill pointed out that youth unemployment stands at 10.7 percent and national underemployment at 9.3 percent.

Instead, the difficulty is better understood as a labor supply problem — which is to say that farmers can’t find the kind of workers they want. When interviewed about the kind of workers they need, farmers don’t list hard skills or physical traits as desirable worker qualities. Instead they look for a certain “attitude” — namely, compliance and a willingness to accept substandard pay and conditions.

The SWP and PLS were designed to ensure the availability of this kind of compliant workforce. Because seasonal workers’ stay in Australia is temporary, they face considerable barriers to organizing. And at the same time, these schemes tied workers to single employers, making it difficult to defend their rights or leave exploitative situations.

Solidarity between bosses has made life even more difficult for workers who come to Australia. Dr Basil Leodoro, president of the Vanuatu Association for Public Service Employees (VAPSE), spoke to Jacobin. He observed that labor hire contractors work together to blacklist workers who stand up for themselves. As he explained:

A lot of contractors target the first-timers, threatening them with blacklisting, just because they don’t want them to organize. And I can confirm that we have seen a similar pattern of blacklisting workers that have come and reported it to us.

These tactics have successfully made horticultural workers vulnerable, while making it harder for them to unionize. As a result, the industry has been characterized by low wages, substandard and often illegal work conditions, and endemic worker abuse. Clearly, the SWP and PLS were programs designed for the benefit of agricultural capitalists.

Hyperexploitation

The government defends the various temporary migrant labor schemes on the basis that it will help promote “development” workers’ countries of origin. The Coalition has claimed that seasonal workers in Australia can earn enough to start businesses back home. In reality, this is far from true. Most seasonal workers never earn anything like the capital needed to make a profitable investment. Indeed, even before seasonal workers set off for Australia, they have often incurred debts that eat into possible earnings.

As Dr Leodoro explains, seasonal workers are burdened with “hidden costs,” including travel between islands, passport arrangements, contractor fees, and medical examinations. And that’s before they even make it onto a flight, which they are also often required to pay for.

Upon arrival in Australia, seasonal workers face further wage reductions. The higher cost of living in Australia is magnified by the fact that employers make temporary workers pay for their own accommodation. In far-flung farming communities, often their only choice is to rent a single bed in a house with other workers. Photos of workers’ accommodation on the “Seasonal Workers Vanuatu” Facebook group reveal harrowing conditions. On top of this, the lack of alternative housing means that employers can exact exorbitant rents.

On the farm itself, it’s no secret that employers regularly dock workers’ pay or systematically underpay them. Until recently, piece rates made it possible for bosses to pay workers below the legal minimum, on the basis of lower productivity. Although this was theoretically illegal, the practice persisted for decades. The Fair Work Commission only ruled to abolish it across the sector following a case brought by the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), supported by the United Workers Union (UWU). Even so, underpayment via piece rates is only one form of wage theft in the sector. Bosses also deduct from workers’ earnings illegally by paying them on the books, and then making them withdraw cash to repay a portion of the wage.

On top of this hyper-exploitation, Australia’s seasonal labor schemes often impact negatively on the workers’ countries of origin. Because it’s generally skilled workers who make use of the program, Vanuatu, for example, loses a significant percentage of its labor supply for a large part of the year. And when there’s a periodic shortfall in workers, it makes it more difficult to grow local industry. Though sold as mutually beneficial for both countries, these programs contribute to the underdevelopment of many pacific island nations while contributing cheap labor to Australian bosses.

Permanent Residency Is Not a Silver Bullet

In large part, it’s the temporary nature of migration under the SWP an PLS that makes seasonal workers so vulnerable. Many endure substandard or illegal treatment knowing that their contract will end in a few months anyway.

The major innovation of the new visa program is that it creates a pathway to permanent residency, theoretically providing both the farmers and the workers with greater stability. In the fact sheet for the new visa, the federal government declares itself to be “committed to exploring permanent residency pathways for participants in the program.” Despite this, the details remain unclear. All we have is the vague prognostication that “this will involve further consultation and design work.”

Permanent residency doesn’t just provide stability, it potentially removes barriers to union organizing. But this is far from inevitable. In fact, much of the agricultural workforce already has residency or citizenship status. For these workers, being Australian or enjoying the right to live and work here indefinitely goes a very small way to attenuating the exploitation endemic to the industry.

For example, as a worker named Daisy explained to Jacobin, she came up from Wollongong to work the blueberry farms in the Coffs Harbour region in the summer of 2020. She described how the hierarchies on the farm create conditions for forms of exploitation that aren’t immediately apparent. For example, the contracted workforce was segmented and divided by piece rates. Contract workers typically earn about $3.50-4.00 per kilo of berries picked.

“You would have to pick 5 kilos in an hour,” Daisy tells me, “to get minimum wage.” Only experienced workers, however, are capable of this feat. The effect was the creation of a layer of skilled workers who have a stake in piece rates. These divides can make it harder to build solidarity and take industrial action.

While Daisy was working on the Coffs coast, she saw daily struggle between the workers and the contractor. Recurrent disputes over rates, time worked and workers often ended with workers packing up and walking off the job. However, bosses found it easy enough to break these spontaneous strikes by playing off skilled workers against less skilled workers, or by dividing workers on the basis of their cultural backgrounds. In one case, Daisy recounted, a supervisor realized the extent of exploitation going on and called a meeting to address it. One of the more experienced workers informed the contractor about him — and he didn’t return to work the next day.

A permanent visa or citizenship also doesn’t necessarily guarantee that workers will be able to change employers or move to find better work. Asmarina, an Eritrean migrant working in the Coffs Harbour region, recounts that “there is a high majority” of the local community working on the farms. Most accept poor conditions because they believe they lack the skills necessary to find better work. As a result, they feel no choice but to push themselves. “If you don’t work hard or fast,” she explains, “you won’t get the right amount of money.”

The fact remains that regardless of their migration status, agricultural workers across the board endure conditions that would be unthinkable in other industries. Simply being entitled to the rights associated with permanent residency does not guarantee that these rights will be respected. The agricultural visa does nothing to clamp down on employer negligence or build workers’ rights.

Solidarity and Internationalism

Farmworker issues have brought together unions like the AWU and the UWU on Australian soil. They’ve also created scope for collaboration between the UWU and unions in seasonal workers’ home countries, like the VAPSE or the Vanuatu National Workers Union (VNWU). The growth of solidarity across state and national lines is extremely promising.

Solidarity has already resulted in wins. In 2017, a hundred fifty tomato greenhouse workers from Vanuatu joined the National Union of Workers (now amalgamated into UWU) and won better rights than any other seasonal workers in the country. This included the right to return every year. Since then, tomato greenhouse workers and lettuce and herb pickers from many backgrounds in Victoria and South Australia have won major wage rises and reclaimed stolen wages.

Victories like these require years of patient organizing. As Tim Nelthorpe, an organizer in UWU’s farmworker section spoke to Jacobin, and explained that,

To organize a completely unorganized industry like horticulture takes a generation. The efforts of our members and organizers over the last seven years have centered on building an active group of workers capable of tackling wage underpayment and other forms of noncompliance, improving conditions through collective action and bargaining, and winning both individual visa issues and collective visa reform.

The aspects of the new Ag Visa that strengthen workers’ rights should be seen as the product of this kind of long-term struggle. As Nelthorpe points out, it’s a crucial goal for unions representing horticultural workers to create “a new form of permanency and stability on farms that enables workers to more easily speak up and tackle issues at the point of production.”

This is also why O’Neill and the Australian Council of Trade Unions are right to raise concerns about the new visa. Without union strength, the agricultural visa could become a nightmare for incoming seasonal workers. However, the solidarity built by workers organized in the UWU, VAPSE, and VNWU demonstrates that change is possible. With organization and militancy, the agricultural visa could become a weapon in the fight to end hyperexploitation of seasonal workers in Australia.