Working for $9 a day:
Wage theft and human rights abuses on Australian farms

Executive summary

Labour is vital to the Australian horticulture industry. Seasonal variation and the transient nature of the work makes the farmworker population difficult to measure. It is estimated that approximately 142,000 people work in the horticulture industry. Fruit grape and nut farms employ around 104,000 workers and vegetable farms employ 38,000 workers. Over 40% of the workforce are on temporary visas, including Working Holiday and Seasonal Worker Program. The total number of temporary visa holders working in the sector ranged from 65,000 in February 2019 to 44,000 in October 2019. The demand for overseas workers is relatively high, particularly in remote areas.

Over the years, we have often heard that migrant workers are vulnerable to exploitation, particularly in the Australian farm sector. The high demands for labour during the harvest season have led to increased use of the temporary workforce. Since the mid-1990’s, the Australian government has introduced temporary visa schemes to fulfill the workforce shortage. However, the demands-driven and employer-sponsored designed program inevitably gives employers too much power and puts too many roadblocks in front of workers trying to report any workplace misconduct. The Senate Standing Committee Inquiry (2016) also raised concerns that migrant workers may fear repercussions when relying on their employer to sign their visa application forms and ensuring they comply with their visa restrictions.

A significant amount of research , reports , and a number of parliamentary committees have been explicit about the widespread noncompliance with workplace laws and the poorly regulated labour market in the Australian horticultural sector. The vulnerability of temporary migrant workers arises from a series of overlapping mechanisms that contributes to their precarious status, including dependence on a third party for the right of residence, authority to work and social security network.

During the COVID pandemic in 2020, the Migrant Workers Centre (Victoria) and Unions NSW organised an online backpacker forum where people on temporary visas reported being stranded in Australia when country borders closed. The Australian government provided no social safety net support whatsoever.

During the forum, participants raised a range of issues including a lack of COVID safety measures, unsafe work practices and low wages connected with the piece rate system. The National Horticulture Industry Piece Rate Survey was conducted to build solid evidence on the working experience of horticultural workers, focusing on piece rate worker groups across a variety of crops, exploring their rates of pay, other entitlements and common grievances that occur during employment.

More than 1,300 workers completed the survey. 52% of the respondents were female and 44% were male, from 54 countries, across 6 regions. The survey results indicate that piecework pay is commonly applied in the Australian horticultural industry; up to 91% of survey participants had been paid by piece rate. The majority, 84%, of survey participants, were on temporary visas, with 89% being on a Working Holiday or Work and Holiday visa.

The Horticulture Award requires employers and employees to have genuinely agreed to piece rate work. Our survey evidence is that many employers fail to comply with this requirement; 63% of respondents were not given a choice between piece rates or being paid an hourly rate. 34% said they had never signed a piece rate agreement.

Piece rate workers’ daily working hours are unpredictable, and this variability contributes to income instability and employment insecurity. On average, the maximum and minimum daily working hours shown are highly irregular; the maximum daily working hours across all crops was 20 and the minimum was 1.

The National Horticulture Industry Piece Rate Survey results demonstrate that wage theft is widespread within the horticulture industry and experienced under both payment systems, hourly rate and piece rate, although it was more severe amongst those being paid by piece rate. The survey results revealed that 78% of horticulture workers were underpaid.

Lastly, a significant proportion of survey respondents stated that they had experienced work-injuries, discrimination, bullying, sexual assault or harassment at work. Many had also experienced problems with exploitative transport arrangements and the overpriced, unsanitary and overcrowded nature of employer-provided accommodation.

Key findings

An overwhelming majority of the survey respondents were victims of wage theft.

  • 78% of the survey respondents were underpaid at some point when working in the horticulture industry.
  • Survey respondents were more likely to experience wage theft when being paid a piecework rate. 80% of participants were underpaid when getting paid a piece rate, while 61% were underpaid when earning an hourly rate.
  • Underpayment levels were severe. Piece rate workers reported, in some instances, earning less than $1 an hour. 15% of piece rate workers indicated earnings between $0 to $7 an hour, 29% earned $8 to $11 an hour, 19% between $12 to $15 an hour and 16% earned $16 to $19 an hour. Only 11% were paid $20 to $23 an hour. Contrary to suggestions that the piece rates allow workers to earn above the minimum wage, only 2% reported earning $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 $10 per day, melons $18 per day, watermelons $21 per day, tomatoes $23 per day, and strawberries $24 per day.

A significant number of workers in the horticulture industry have not only experienced wage theft but have been exposed to other insecure and unsafe working conditions that intensify the precariousness of their employment.

  • 71% of survey participants were employed as casual employees.
  • 63% of respondents were never given a choice between piece rate or hourly rate.
  • 34% stated that they never signed a piece rate agreement.
  • 12% of respondents reported having worked as many as 20 hours a day under piece rate at least once, while 25% of respondents reported having had shifts as short as 1 hour a day.
  • Survey participants were given a multiple-choice question to identify the employment law issues they had experienced when working in the horticulture industry, if any. Of those who answered the question, 49% reported problems related to accommodation and transport, 26% reported issues relating to employer breaches in work health and safety laws and 35% stated grievances related to discrimination, harassment, and bullying.

Recommendations

Recommendation 1: The Fair Work Commission should amend Clause 15.2(i) of the Horticulture Award 2020 to guarantee that all workers in the horticulture sector are paid at least the applicable minimum wage, including any overtime rates that would be applicable even when engaged on piece-rate agreements.

Recommendation 2: The Fair Work Commission should remove clause 15.2 (e) of the Horticulture Award 2020, which currently removes for piece rate workers entitlements to ordinary hours of work and rostering arrangements, meal allowance, and overtime.

Recommendation 3: Introduce an enforcement program targeting backpackers’ accommodation to combat widespread non-compliance with state and local government housing laws.

Recommendation 4: The federal government should provide workplace rights information in regional areas where the horticultural industry has a significant presence, funding trade unions and community legal centres to deliver information sessions on workplace rights regularly in community languages.

Recommendation 5: The federal government should strike out the restrictive and inequitable conditions that apply to various temporary visa schemes, which in practice prevent visa holders from exercising their workplace rights and fighting against discrimination and exploitation.

Recommendation 6: The federal government should introduce a sustainable temporary visa scheme that provides a pathway to permanent residency, to prevent visa holders entering an endless bureaucratic roundabout that is exposing them to visa status vulnerability.

Recommendation 7: The federal government should criminalise wage theft, including where employers have breached, falsified, or failed to apply payslip and record-keeping obligations in order avoid workers’ entitlements, superannuation, and taxation obligations. The federal government must ensure all workers are well-protected and can exercise their workplace rights and be free from workplace discrimination.

Recommendation 8: The federal government should introduce a national labour-hire licensing scheme. This scheme should be based on the best practice of the existing models in Queensland and Victoria.

Recommendation 9: The federal government should expand the social safety net to cover all temporary migrant workers. Civil society organisations, including trade unions, migrant community organisations, and community legal centres, should be assisted with adequate funding to extend their services to migrant workers and meet their social, economic, and cultural needs.

Recommendation 10: The federal government should establish a migrant workers hub in regional areas where the horticultural industry has a significant presence, allowing migrant workers to seek assistance or make an enquiry about their workplace exploitation, harassment, or injury, which would enable them to access the national justice system.

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