Union Survey Reveals Rampant Wage Theft and Human Rights Abuses on Australian Farms

Unions NSW

Migrant workers and unionists are taking their concerns to Canberra, as a new survey provides further alarming evidence of widespread exploitation and rampant wage theft experienced by backpackers working in the horticultural industry.

The report, entitled “Working for $9 a day; Wage Theft and Human Rights Abuses on Australian Farms” includes survey results from more than 1300 horticulture industry workers.

This is a joint study conducted by Unions NSW and the Migrant Workers’ Centre in Victoria, and comes at a time when piece rates in the Horticulture Award are under review in the Fair Work Commission. Workers from 54 countries were surveyed about their rates of pay, entitlements and conditions.

Key findings

● 78% of survey respondents reported being underpaid at some point.

● 80% were underpaid while on piece rates, and 61% were underpaid on hourly rates.

● Some piece-rate workers reported earning less than $1 an hour.

● Only 2% earned $26 or more an hour.

● The lowest daily wages were reported by piece-rate workers employed on grape and zucchini farms, earning an average $9 per day, followed by blueberry farm workers who averaged $10 per day.

Key recommendations

The Fair Work Commission should amend the Horticulture Award to guarantee workers are paid at least the applicable minimum wage.

Additionally, the federal government should:

● introduce stronger enforcement of backpackers’ accommodation to combat widespread non-compliance with relevant housing laws;

● make wage theft a crime;

● fund regional hubs, and fund unions and community legal centres to run information sessions to empower workers to learn about and stand up for their rights;

● introduce a national labour hire licensing scheme modelled on Queensland and Victoria;

● make a raft of systemic changes to combat discrimination facing migrant workers, including reforming the temporary visa system, introducing pathways to permanent residency, and providing a social safety net for all temporary migrant workers.

Mark Morey, Unions NSW Secretary said:

“Farmers and the NFF have made fantasy submissions to the Fair Work Commission, claiming that the piece rates system allows workers to earn above the minimum wage. However the toxic reality is that the overwhelming majority of workers in this sector are being ripped off.

“They are also being treated like pawns, with about 12% of those surveyed having worked as many as 20 hours a day under piece rates at least once, while a quarter of respondents say they have had shifts as short as one hour a day.

“The Horticulture Award requires employers to provide workers with a choice between piece rates or being paid an hourly rate, but clearly that is not happening. Our survey found 63% of workers were given no choice and 34% said they had never even seen a piece-rate agreement.”

Matt Kunkel, Migrant Workers Centre Director said:

“All workers, regardless of where they’re from or their visa status, deserve to earn a living wage, work in safe conditions, and be treated with dignity and respect. This survey proves that the majority of farm managers are engaging in rampant wage theft and outright abuse. Many are also responsible for injuries sustained by workers, along with discrimination, bullying, sexual assault and harassment.

“For many workers, this abuse is compounded by additional layers of exploitation relating to transport arrangements and overpriced, unsanitary and overcrowded employer-provided accommodation. And during COVID, migrant workers – who had paid taxes to the Australian Government – were not eligible for JobKeeper nor any kind of support, and in fact were told to go home.

“This is a shameful, inhumane and blatantly racist way to treat migrant farm workers on whom we depend for so much of our food – and who pay their taxes in this country. We are demanding the Federal Government undertake a range of urgent measures to address this catastrophic situation.”

/Public Release. This material comes from the originating organization and may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length.