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Backpackers are paid as little as $3 an hour picking fruit

Exploited backpackers are being paid as little as $3 an hour to pick fruit on Australian farms, according to a shocking report which has sparked calls for a royal commission.

Blueberry pickers in the Coffs Harbour region of New South Wales are being severely underpaid and forced to stay in cramped, overpriced accommodation, a three-month investigation by The McKell Institute found.

Some have even been scammed by dodgy labour hire firms who issued fake payslips but never actually transferred the workers their money. 

Exploited backpackers are being paid as little as $3 an hour to pick fruit on Australian farms. Pictured: An image from a recent report on blueberry farms

This converted shipping container housed four Pacific Islander farm workers for $120 each per week. The landlord was making $480 per week on one container- the same price as a three-bedroom house in the Coffs Harbour region

Australian backpacker Sally realised she had been scammed by a subcontractor when her pay failed to show up in her bank account.

She messaged the person who hired her on WhatsApp but was spammed with 2,000 messages calling her a 'dog' and a 'pig'.

The labour hirer was not registered with an ABN and contact details on the payslips did not work.

Researchers who spent 12 weeks on the mid North Coast during the 2020 picking season also found several examples of workers being grossly underpaid. 

Some were given as little as $7 a bucket to pick low-quality fruit – which sometimes worked out as $3 an hour - well below the award rate of $24 an hour.

In one case, 28 year old German worker Jonas earned an average of just $6.21 per hour for 17 days of back-breaking work.

Other backpackers described common employment arrangements where accommodation, transport, food, and even vital equipment like gloves and berry containers had to be bought directly from farm owners, reducing daily earnings.

Left: Australian backpacker Sally was spammed with 2,000 messages calling her a 'dog' and a 'pig' by her labour-hire firm boss. Right: One undercover investigator messaged a hiring company which offered a job picking fruit at $3.50-$4 per kilo in September 2020

The investigation found that labour hire companies use Facebook, WeChat and Gumtree to falsely promote fruit-picking as fun work and lie about the potential wages.

One undercover investigator messaged a hiring company which offered a job picking fruit at $3.50-$4 per kilo in September 2020.

Via Asian messaging app Line, the contractor said the workers would pick for 63 hours a week from 7am to 4pm every day, earning $600 at just $9.50 an hour.

The company also offered cramped share house accommodation for $130 a week.

Exploitation and wage theft: What did the report find?

No worker shortage in Coffs Harbour

The COVID-19 outbreak actually increased numbers of migrant workers (mainly Working Holiday Makers) to around 2000 in the Coffs area during the study.

The rapid growth of industry has led to bad behaviour

An increase of blueberry farms over five years has resulted in an influx of labour-hirers who exploit an abundance of short-term workers.

Backpackers are being set up for exploitation

Tourists on the Working Holiday Maker visa wanting to extend their stay are vulnerable to underpayment, because of rules requiring them to work 88 days in regional Australia.

Wage theft is a business model

Some workers have alleged gross underpayments as low as $3 an hour, orchestrated through the systemic abuse of piece-rates. 

Source: McKell Institute 

The report said there was a 'considerable' power-imbalance between employers and workers because backpackers are required to complete 88 days of farm or mining work to qualify for a second-year visa to stay in Australia. 

McKell Institute Policy Director Edward Cavanough said the backpackers he spoke to felt intimidated and 'powerless to complain'.

'These foreign workers are often aware they are being exploited, but feel frightened and uncertain about making formal complaints,' Mr Cavanough said.

'Those who do complain often face hurdles like language barriers and bureaucratic delays which means their allegations are never investigated.'

The Australian Workers' Union, the Transport Workers' Union, and the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association, jointly funded the investigation.

AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton has called for a royal commission to investigate exploitation.

'This shocking new report can be added to the mountain of research indicating that Australian farms have become a hotbed of wage theft, exploitation, and worker abuse. It's not just Coffs Harbour either – pick a spot on the map, and you will find outrageous exploitation,' Mr Walton said.

'This idea that exploitation is limited to a few bad apples needs to be done away with. This is a sector defined by and built on illegality. 

'By turning a blind eye, the government has created a system of rules and structures that rewards labour abusers and punishes those operators doing the right thing. 

'We'd like to see good farmers stand with us and call out the bad operators, rather than staying silent and let the rip offs continue.'

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said he is open to a royal commission but changing the law to better protect workers would be quicker.

'Look, you never say never to a royal commission, but I think you need to work through these issues calmly and make sure that you use common sense about how you can address it,' he told Sky News on Friday morning.

'You can address it with legislation and if you can do that quickly, then why go through the torture of a long, protracted royal commission when you could, in fact, rectify this with legislation and particularly if it's harmonised across the country? That would be a far stronger leadership way in which to deal with this.' 

The McKell report outlines a range of reforms including a crackdown on rogue recruiters, stronger penalties, greater enforcement from workplace investigators, reforms of Australia's visa schemes and new laws to ensure farmers are required to pay a minimum hourly rate.  

AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton has called for a royal commission to investigate exploitation. Pictured: Workers on a farm

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