How a Gumine family graduated from Yale
Letter to My Big Sister

Australia is exploiting its seasonal workers

PlaqueBERNARD CORDEN

“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.

It is even endorsed through the federal government's Seasonal Worker Program and supplementary Pacific Labour Scheme, which is effectively indentured servitude reminiscent of blackbirding.

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.

Buckets ready for the itinerant fruit pickers near Bundaberg  Queensland
Buckets ready for itinerant fruit pickers near Bundaberg in  Queensland

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.

Fresno beeAs 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

Comments

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Bernard Corden

The first charter flight of farm workers from the Pacific Islands has arrived in Queensland under the restarted Seasonal Worker Program:

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-11-03/first-charter-flight-of-foreign-workers-arrives-in-queensland/12842906

Science progresses with each funeral.

Bernard Corden

Dear Lindsay,

A recent media report from the Grenfell Tower inquiry:

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/oct/06/grenfell-inquiry-hears-council-at-heart-of-cost-cutting-decisions

Lindsay F Bond

While on the topic about effect on workers, it's also the consumers being screwed by a machinating methodological governance ploy (sell it off to mercantile mates so to avoid liabilities of operations that were for "public service"), but then such simplification gets sloshed in the wash.

See: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-10-02/monopoly-power-in-australia-business-coronavirus-us-tech-giants/12710726

Lindsay F Bond

Agh, Bernard, far from me any such doctrine, theory, or worse, plan of exaction.

Containment of a virus begins with getting to know exactly the source of woe.

What I asked is, ‘What prospect’. John is addressing that via one solution.

Freed of greed? That’s not free to feed, but dampens fires of extractive ire.

John Greenshields

There is a lot of fresh food wasted, so I can understand an 80% markup. However, when this week I saw three bundles of asparagus for $5 at the greengrocer, I wonder what the poor grower and pickers got from that. I bought some, but I'm troubled by the ethics of it, and believe all in the food chain need to get a fair return. If that means higher food prices, so be it. Fair wages would help.

Bernard Corden

Dear John,

The minimum mark up from our supermarket duopoly on the produce is often 80%.

John Greenshields

There is a case for labour unions except they are now too focused on issues like identity politics and climate change to have any time to organise and stand up for poor
temporary field labourers.

John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath hoping for change.

The way to forward might be to apply the minimum wage for everyone in seasonal and only permit piece work pay as a bonus to that.*

Too bad if fruit and veg prices in supermarkets here and overseas (where most of the stuff ends up) rise.

*As a former employer of both hourly rate and piece work labour, I support that.

Bernard Corden

Dear Lindsay,

You have provided a nice summary of the Friedman doctrine or shareholder theory.

Lindsay F Bond

Yeah, Bernard, the topic is of major trafficking perhaps en route to rougher territory.

Alas, at that pace, and even with a trike, my journeying is tumbled by surges of air.

Lords of the manor have long (maybe ever) prised energy and life out of their liegemen.

So what prospect now for the less endowed when seeking skinny supplements?

Commerce, mere commerce, dear commerce, sheer commerce, tightens screws.

Concealing uncaring amidst 'consumer demand' is a compressing of compassion.

Chris Overland

The situation with respect to seasonal workers, deplorable as it is, simply reflects the truth about the so-called gig economy that has now been created here and elsewhere in the world.

It is a form of economy that would be immediately recognisable to, say, Charles Dickens or Karl Marx because its essential characteristics are not dissimilar to those of many workers in the mid 19th century.

This is no accident but the result of a series of policy decisions taken by successive Australian governments to preference insecure, episodic and generally low paid jobs to what had been a pattern of long term, relatively secure employment with one employer.

In the name of "flexibility", we have created an employment system that results in chronic and persistent uncertainty for employees, with little likelihood of career advancement.

Of course, not everyone is caught up in this system. It is very prevalent in the service sectors of the economy like tourism, hospitality, transport, agriculture, aged care, disability and even in health.

It is less prevalent in areas like finance, information technology and the various public service entities.

The neo-liberal philosophy is based upon a whole set of assumptions, foremost of which is the Chicago school of economics ideas popularised by Milton Friedman that boil down to unfettered capitalism being allowed to do pretty much what it wants is an inherently good idea.

Governments role is to either actively help create the conditions needed for business to thrive or otherwise get out of the road. This is what the notion of deregulation or cutting red tap really means.

The current Australian government are the propagators of this ideology, quite explicitly taking measures intended to allow business to do what it wants even in the face of evidence that can and does lead to perverse outcomes.

Thus it can decide that it will be a good thing to relieve the banks of any obligation to inquire into a prospective borrowers ability to repay a loan even though the recent Banking Royal Commission has forcefully pointed out the very adverse consequences this leads to for many people.

Many Australians seem unable or unwilling to understand just how pernicious and destructive the neo-liberal philosophy is to their best interests.

Very belatedly, more than a few people have woken up to the problems attached to this particular model of capitalism but the political and business power elites remain firmly within its grip.

The almost revolutionary fervour now evident in the USA amongst the losers in this system is evidence that change is inevitable. The only question is when and how.

History shows that the grip of the elites can be loosened in only two ways: either they will realise the need for changing towards a fairer and more equitable system or, alternatively, they will have to be forced to change by some means or another.

It is not socialism let alone communism that is needed, simply reform of the obviously unfair and inequitable "rules of the game" within the current capitalist model.

Unless and until this is done then the problems identified by Bernard will remain and, very probably, get worse.

Sadly, I see no indication that, on the conservative side of politics at least, there is any recognition of the need for change. Indeed, they appear to be doubling down on their quest to preference the rich and powerful against the vast majority.

So, if history is any guide, we will continue our march towards what promises to be a very politically disruptive or even violent future when the majority take things into their own hands.

Bernard Corden

Dear Lindsay, Statutory legislation covering the treatment and control of risk favours a science and engineering paradigm that amounts to industrialised avoidance.

This merely treats people as objects and metrics, which is dehumanising and disregards the inherent subjective nature of risk.

It places an inordinate emphasis on rational decision making and ignores the power of the collective unconscious and semiotics, which underpins the massive trillion dollar advertising industry.

Much of what you have written reflects and aligns with the work of Mary Douglas, especially in her fascinating book entitled Purity and Danger:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purity_and_Danger

We require a much more sophisticated transdisciplinary and ecoliterate approach.

Lindsay F Bond

Bernard, your link was to the presentation of equivalence and to the voting required to assuage liability in non-participation.

Your source alluded to possibility of haemorrhoids and seemed stressed at the thought.

If the 'state' in particular reference evidenced only internal eruptions, folk elsewhere in the world would be unaware. When the condition becomes external, it's messy to more than the carrier.

Back at that nether region, also are words smell, sod and stink, for which a good many folk profit on industrialised avoidance.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Same choice in Australia Bernard.

Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.

We are now only offered slightly different nuances on the same themes.

At least in the US people are not forced to vote if they don't feel like it.

Bernard Corden

It's extremely unlikely to get any better.

https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/09/24/voting-for-the-lesser-of-two-evils-a-vicious-circle/

Lindsay F Bond

Bernard, you characterise an aspect of Australian way of life that seems to amount more to industrialised avoidance.

Take, for instance, the film "Towering Inferno" that scared so many of us in 1974. Designed and constructed exits (where for human egress in emergency) there emerged as products not of disregard but of collective avoidance.

Still then came the Grenfell tower which, though a product of late 1960s, was a rehash as recent as this latest decade. Grenfell disaster came from a system of design requisites and assurances and observances and perhaps some winks. Exiting was possible but made improbable by systemic unawareness by some and, by others apparent avoidance.

Why would we look again at such obvious "candles" in the sky? After all, the Childers episode was a 'low level' disaster.

Is it not that unless the the demonstration is graphically explosive on visual media, mere words cannot heighten and sustain sufficient public awareness, thus the next several 15 minute interviews of 'heads' on media devices, lends to starve of the crucial 'chilling in ones bones', allaying any mongrel in the marrow?

Sorrow of knowing seems too long delayed even separated from diurnal indifference.

So emerges in our most recent weeks, startling examples of avoidance, not only of 'seasonal workers'. These range from an at-risk elderly person dying from utter neglect of duty of care, to a state where elected persons individually now cannot confirm how their collective made a decision about employment of workers to secure and safeguard public health.

Avoidance is a worm awaiting eagle eyes.

Hey, did you know, birds’ beaks are in fact “stiffened and elongated lips”? Perhaps needed is a system of ‘beaks’ to challenge those who put in no more than ‘lip service’.

Philip Fitzpatrick

A nice summary of an outrageous system Bernard.

I'd just add that the end product, the stuff we buy in the supermarkets, is generally tasteless and nutrient deficient because it is grown on depleted soils bulked up with noxious chemical fertilisers.

The tomatoes I've bought at the local supermarket, which come from a giant hydroponic farm near Port Augusta bear absolutely no comparison to the ones I grow myself in a garden bed carefully built up using organic compost.

The horrible orange kaukau you buy in the same supermarket doesn't remotely taste like proper kaukau from a highland garden in PNG.

Unfortunately, people buy this supermarket junk under the impression that it is healthy and because it's cheap, thanks to the slave labour of migrant workers.

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