The Australian Workers’ Union has won important policy commitments at this week’s Australian Labor Party National Conference to combat wage theft and worker exploitation in the nation’s horticulture industry.
The AWU has long campaigned for changes aimed at restoring fairness to the fruit and vegetable sector, including minimum hourly pay rates for pickers, reform of the easily exploited 88-day visa scheme, and a royal commission into industry worker abuse.
The amendments to the ALP National Platform, which were moved by the AWU, note that: “Labor recognises that shocking exploitation in the horticulture industry has persisted for too long without meaningful action by the Coalition Government.
Changes secured by the AWU and Retail Supply Chain Alliance to the Labor National Policy Platform include:
● Support for a guaranteed minimum wage for fruit and vegetable pickers.
● Stronger oversight, enforcement and penalties for employers and labour hire firms.
● Reform of the Working Holiday Maker program to better protect the rights and conditions of visa holders as well as assessing its impact on regional labour markets and industries.
AWU Acting National Secretary Misha Zelinsky said the Australian Labor Party was founded on the principle of a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, and these changes would go a long way to achieving that.
“This vote to civilise working conditions on Australian farms is a classic Labor cause,” Mr Zelinsky said. “Our fruit and veggie sector is addicted to easily exploitable labour and believes the law doesn’t apply to them.”
“This exploitation must end. That’s why we are going to clean up our broken visa system, and we are going to crack down on the shonks.”
“Most importantly the AWU is leading a case at the Fair Work Commission to make sure that when you work an hour in fruit picking you get a guaranteed hour of pay.”
“When you do an hour of work anywhere in the Australian economy you should get a fair rate of pay.”
The AWU is part of the Retail Supply Chain Alliance, which led the charge for changes and is also pushing for a royal commission into worker abuse.
The Retail Supply Chain Alliance is a partnership between the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA), and Transport Workers’ Union (TWU.)
SDA NSW Branch Secretary Bernie Smith said he wants the produce handled by SDA members in warehouses, and sold in shops to be ethically sourced.
“At the heart of ethical sourcing is people being treated and paid properly, and not being exploited,” Mr Smith said, “There is a huge problem with too much of the fruit and veg that currently comes through our supply chains.”
“Money skimmed and stolen by labour-hire operators sees millions of dollars of wages that workers should have to spend in local shops and business, leaving local economies.
“Local economies are damaged, good operators are undercut by shady operators, and local money is lost from the local economy.”
“We commend the AWU for the award application to return a fair minimum wage to this industry, all of regional Australia will benefit from this. Good local jobs support good local economies.”
TWU Assistant National Secretary Nick McIntosh said we are committed to stamping out all forms of exploitation along the retail supply chain.
“The exploitation in the retail supply chain is appalling. Something you would expect one hundred years ago – not in Australia in 2021,” he said.
“Consumers and workers must be confident that the food on the shelf, or delivered to their homes, isn’t there through exploitation.”
“This is about lifting standards in the retail supply chain. It’s about ensuring fairness in an industry which has benefited in terms of the pandemic through bumper profits for the wealthy retailers at the top.”
AWU Horticulture Amendments passed by the Labor National Special Platform Conference:
• Labor recognises that shocking exploitation in the horticulture industry has persisted for too long without meaningful action by the Coalition Government. The current poorly designed and managed visa framework and its fractured approach to sourcing overseas labour gives unscrupulous employers and labour hire firms far too much influence over vulnerable workers and a capacity to use worker exploitation as a business model. Such an approach has allowed for a collapse of wages and conditions in the sector and introduced a guest worker program into Australia by stealth. Labor notes the reputational damage inflicted on Australia by its failed management of the 88 Day Working Holiday Maker visa program and the conscripting of young holiday makers into a sector notorious for exploiting them. Australia must urgently address the horticulture sector’s structural dependence on visa workers and the exploitation and lowering of working conditions that this generates.
• As part of a broader review of the purpose and structure of Australia’s migration program, Labor will reform the Working Holiday Maker program to better protect the rights and conditions of visa holders as well as assessing its impact on regional labour markets and industries.
• Labor supports reforms that protect the rights and conditions of all horticulture workers. Protections for workers will be complemented by a more coherent overall visa framework that preferences permanent migration, the skills, training and employment of Australians, and the use of temporary overseas workers only when needed. This would be reinforced by stronger oversight, enforcement and penalties for employers and labour hire firms that act illegally in the sector. Labor will work to ensure Australia’s horticultural sector is a highly profitable, highly productive sector offering good, secure jobs with fair pay and conditions for all workers, including Australians and workers in regulated programs such as an improved Seasonal Worker Program.
• Labor condemns the exploitation of workers in Australia’s horticultural sector. Labor notes the multitude of government, parliamentary, non-government, union and academic reports that have highlighted this ongoing structural problem with workforce in horticulture. Labor will implement and advocate for policy reforms from opposition and in government that address this issue and immediately end the structural and endemic exploitation of workers that currently exists in Australia’s horticulture sector.
• Labor supports workers in the horticultural sector being paid a guaranteed minimum rate for the work they do. Guaranteed rates of pay will help end exploitation currently occurring via the gaming of piece rates and other illegal behaviour. Labor supports efforts by the union with relevant constitutional industrial coverage to amend the Horticulture Award in order to provide minimum guaranteed rates of pay for horticulture workers.