"Maybe they should try paying more"

Australian agriculture criticized for labor circumstances

As the autumn harvest season begins, Australian horticulture is reportedly facing a crisis. According to a website set up by the National Farmers Federation — where farmers can anonymously self-report crop losses — farmers have lost over $45 million since December last year. A shortage of pickers, they claim, means that crops are rotting in the fields. The causes for labor shortage, however, lay elsewhere, argues Zacharias Szumer with Jacobin magazine.

The farming industry and their political allies argue that the only solution is to allow the immediate return of international workers. This has dovetailed with a conservative narrative accusing unemployed Australians of being work-shy. According to the CEO of the national peak body for vegetable growers: “Whether we like it or not . . . we just simply can’t get Australians to do [farmwork].” 

Needless to say, these arguments are way off the mark, and so are the solutions put forward. The causes of this labor shortage lie elsewhere.

In recent years, international workers have picked around 70 percent of Australian fruit and vegetables. This workforce consists of “backpackers” and other migrants who come to Australia on Working Holiday Maker (WHM) visas, temporary Pasifika and Timorese workers employed under the Seasonal Worker Program (SWP), plus international students and undocumented migrants.

It certainly makes no sense to blame young or unemployed workers for the shortfall. To begin with, there are at least some job seekers interested in doing farm work. In mid-February, the New Daily reported that ten thousand unemployed people had taken up fruit-picking work, with almost a third of those starting after November 2020. DESE has confirmed to Jacobin that the number is now eleven thousand.

Although a federal government program offering fruit pickers $6,000 to relocate to regional areas attracted fewer than five hundred applicants, this was probably due in part to the bureaucratic complexities of applying.

Agriculture Victoria has also offered a $2,430 bonus for those who do at least eight weeks’ work on a farm, filling Facebook feeds with promotional posts urging locals to “take on the Big Victorian Harvest.” However, judging by the comments on some of these ads, the uptake might not be too high either. As one commenter asks (and answers): “What’s the hourly rate? Oh, that’s right. Farmers only pay slave wages and wonder why people aren’t interested.”

This cuts to the heart of the matter. It’s not laziness that has stopped workers from picking fruit — it’s their justified sense of entitlement to a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. If we “simply can’t get Australians” to do seasonal picking work, the main reason is that many fruit and vegetable growers offer work that is stressful, exhausting, but poorly paid.

Read the complete article at www.jacobinmag.com.

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