“Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear” - George Orwell
BRISBANE - In the United States on 28 January 1948, a Douglas DC3 aircraft chartered by US Immigration Services crashed at Los Gatos canyon in California.
There were no survivors and the casualties included several crew members and 28 migrant farm labourers.
Initial media reports identified the crew although many of the remaining victims, who included contingent agricultural workers (braceros) and illegal immigrants, were disparagingly categorised as 'deportees' or 'collateral damage'.
Many of the unidentified bodies were scattered like dry leaves across the topsoil and the remains were eventually buried in a mass grave at Holy Cross cemetery in nearby Fresno.
A commemorative headstone acknowledges the tragedy, although each Hispanic victim was merely identified in the cemetery register as an anonymous Mexican national.
Here we are, more than seven decades later and despite numerous inquests and official inquiries, the deaths and exploitation of migrant fruit pickers continues in Australia.
This corporate welfare, or 'socialism for the rich', provides Woolworths or Coles with freedom to benefit from cheap labour. And, in turn, it also supports the relentless deification of shareholder theory.
At the beginning of this century, a fire at the Childers Palace backpackers’ hostel in Queensland resulted in the deaths of 15 young tourists. Local agricultural and horticultural businesses used the flophouse as a recruitment hub and many of its residents were employed under contingent labour hire arrangements.
The ageing two-storey wooden structure was a tinderbox and many guests shared quarters equipped with tiered sleeping arrangements. The windows in an upper dormitory, which accounted for ten of the victims, were fitted with steel security bars and a bunkbed blocked access to the emergency exit.
These deaths added to the growing list of seasonal worker deaths, injuries and exploitation. Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman recently confirmed there had been over 80 fatalities in the agricultural and horticultural sectors over the ten years leading up to 2016.
Other victims suffered appalling injuries operating dilapidated farming equipment or machinery and there were many other horrific events that frequently left vulnerable migrants disabled and permanently disfigured.
This tragic record was aggravated by rampant intimidation, sexual harassment and relentless abuse, all underpinned by an autocratic culture of fear.
The exploitation of itinerant workers and Dickensian working conditions throughout Queensland’s Wide Bay region using contingent labour hire is well documented.
A young German backpacker died whilst working for Barbera Farms on a tomato plantation near Childers in December 2009.
The cause of death was not released but following an extensive investigation and prosecution, the company pleaded guilty to breaching work health and safety legislation.
It operated a labour intensive contingent workforce but failed to supply drinking water for its employees and manage the risk of dehydration and heat stress.
In November 2017, a Belgian tourist collapsed on a farm near Ayr in North Queensland whilst picking watermelons. The victim was transported to hospital and died the following morning from suspected heat stroke.
More recently, an extensive clandestine investigation involving a strawberry farm in regional Queensland revealed many undesirable consequences pertaining to the federal government Seasonal Worker Program and its complementary Pacific Labour Scheme. All exacerbated by a broken and easily manipulated work visa system.
After working at the plantation for almost two months under contingent labour hire arrangements one young female accumulated just under $70 in savings and the parsimonious wages sometimes amounted to a meagre $2.50 an hour for the average worker.
Each year tens of thousands of young migrant backpackers are channelled onto Australian farms and exploited.
Covino Farms in eastern Victoria is a principal supplier to many leading supermarkets. Over recent years the farm received many notices relating to work health and safety misdemeanours and a significant fine followed breaches of environmental legislation.
In 2013 despite its mediocre performance, the company secured a $1.5 million grant from the Victorian state government run by Denis Napthine, a neoliberal premier.
On 31 December 2016, a vegetable packer engaged by a contingent labour hire provider was struck by a forklift and crushed by falling lettuce crates. The victim received multiple physical injuries, which included a dislocated shoulder, fractured pelvis and extensive bruising.
It was the third significant safety incident at the Longford facility in almost two years and the organisation pleaded guilty and received a $80,000 fine with almost $5,000 costs at Sale magistrates court for failing to maintain a safe workplace.
In Shepparton on 7 November 2015, a young Irish backpacker received appalling injuries whilst cleaning beneath a moving conveyor belt, which was used to deliver pears for packing and distribution. The young girl lost all her hair and an ear was ripped off when the scalp was torn from her head after she became entangled in a packing conveyor rotating drive shaft.
The victim was rushed to a local hospital, stabilised and then transferred via air ambulance to Melbourne for further treatment. The horrific but preventable incident left the young lady permanently disfigured.
In the Shepparton magistrates’ court the organisation initially received a $50,000 fine with $22,000 costs to cover the Worksafe Victoria investigation investigation. Following an appeal the penalty was increased to $150,000 in the Shepparton County Court and a conviction was recorded.
Towards the end of 2016 federal immigration officials raided several agricultural properties south east of Melbourne near Koo Wee Rup, which is Australia’s largest asparagus growing district. The farms were owned by Joe Vizzarri, who was president of the Australian Asparagus Council and one of Australia’s largest asparagus and baby broccoli growers.
The local community was stunned when almost 100 illegal immigrants found working in the packing sheds while many others breached prescribed requirements on their working visas. Several people were eventually arrested and charged with illegal labour hiring offences.
The federal police also seized more than $3.7 million in assets, which included properties valued at $2.95 million, a Mercedes SUV and several bank accounts containing approximately $800,000 in cash.
In 2018 dozens of farm workers from Vanuatu were engaged under the federal government Seasonal Worker Program via Agri Labour Australia, a Brisbane based recruitment agency. The vulnerable migrants were allocated to the MCG Fresh Produce farm near Tatura, west of Shepparton in Victoria’s Goulburn Valley.
Evidence indicates the inequitable arrangements were effectively serfdom or vassalage and often involved intimidation, underpayment and wage theft that was aggravated by unsafe working conditions, which included exposure to hazardous chemicals.
The aggrieved litigants launched legal action against the labour hire company covering exploitation and gross underpayment. The claim was eventually settled via undisclosed financial arrangements, which also enabled the plaintiffs to return to Australia and participate in the program if any future opportunities transpired.
This is an impressive list of malfeasance but it represents only part of a huge catalogue of similar cases telling of the effective abuse of people working under the federal government's Seasonal Worker Program in a number of locations trhoughout Australia.
More recently, a survey and subsequent report from the former National Union of Workers documented the experiences of temporary migrants engaged in the picking and packing of fruit across farms and plantations in Victoria. It depicted intimidation, rampant exploitation, underpayment and wage theft underpinned by a festering autocratic culture of malfeasance, fear and dishonesty.
The survey confirmed almost two thirds of respondents earned below the minimum hourly award rate of $23.66 and their average gross pay was a parsimonious $14.80 per hour with some hourly rates reported as a meagre $4.60. Many of the subjugated peons are left with a frugal wage of less than $200 per week.
Most of these findings aligned with an ABC-TV Four Corners investigation entitled Slaving Away, which juxtaposed the plight of temporary migrants in a first world country with a third world bondage system.
Meanwhile, a recent overhaul of legislative requirements in Australia now enables industry to classify certain chemicals without any public disclosure as to the harm they may cause. The revamp was sanctioned by the federal minister for disease (not his official title) amidst the current neoliberal maelstrom that inevitably favours corporate and state interests over public safety.
In an era of rampant casino capitalism, Australia’s supermarket duopoly sits at the head of a brutal supply chain. Mercenary senior executives are on a prolonged race to the bottom supported by a feudal system of indentured servitude.
It is a system that often exerts relentless pressure to drive down prices and reduce overheads, which significantly increases the risk of serious injury or death, especially amongst migrant farm labourers at the bottom of the supply chain.
The Pacific Labour Mobility Scheme enables approved employers to recruit workers from participating Pacific Island countries when sufficient local labour is unavailable. It complements the Seasonal Worker Program under a cabinet minister with a unique ability to open her mouth and make her face disappear.
The worker program and its supplementary mobility scheme are demand driven structures fraught with significant risk. The arrangements are underpinned by free market fundamentalism and have been usurped by corporate power with superficial protocols covering employer accreditation, supplier registration and frivolous supply chain audits.
This is exacerbated by a sector that traditionally relies on casual labour with cash in hand payments, which is further antagonised by a chaotic visa system. Much of what occurs is beyond the gaze of mindless consumers in supermarket aisles shopping on credit for items that thrill for a minute and last for a moment, which they typically want but don’t actually need.
On several occasions over recent years most members of our state and federal parliaments across Australia have been provided with a copy of my extensive treatise entitled ‘How Grim Was My Valley - The Great Safety Charade’.
In this document I raise these and many other significant workplace health and safety issues.
I have provided copies to countless public serpents and other panjandrums in various statutory agencies, industry associations, trade unions and numerous quangos, which include our peak safety bodies.
The response has been a resounding silence.
Human virtues such as helping, compassion, caring, listening and learning are absent everywhere except in corporate mission statements. Indeed, sympathy typically lies somewhere between shit and syphilis in most company's glossaries.
As Woody Guthrie wrote for us in Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (aka Deportee):
The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting
The oranges piled up in their creosote dumps
You're flying 'em back to the Mexican border
To spend all their money to wade back again
Good bye to my Juan goodbye Rosalita
Adios mis amigos Jesus Y Maria
You won't have a name when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be deportees
Some of us are illegal and others not wanted
Our work contract's up and we have to move on
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves
The skyplane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon
A fireball of lightning shook all our hills
Who are all these friends who are scattered like dried leaves?
The radio said they were just deportees