Ending exploitation starts with the farm gate price

Sunday, 22 March 2015

OP-ED published by Queensland Country Life and www.farmonline.com.au on 23 March, 2015.

It’s a situation all too common in the horticulture sector. The supermarket giant demands to pay a lower price, but the farmer’s input costs continue to rise. Reliant on a large seasonal workforce, he turns to a contract labour hire company to hopefully save himself a few dollars.

He suspects the contractor may be breaching immigration, taxation or industrial relations laws, but turns a blind eye for the sake of his family’s livelihood.    

The farmer’s use of a contractor in no way diminishes his responsibility to those workers. Under Australian law he is equally liable and, in most cases, he’s easier for the authorities to pursue.       

Not only has he put his business at risk, but his actions also disadvantage those Australian farmers and contractors who do the right thing.

Sham contracting affects more than just the horticulture sector!

Tourism operators have complained for years that the poor treatment of backpackers damages Australia’s reputation abroad.

Contractors are today employing fewer European and Australian workers because most know their rights. This has distorted regional labour markets, where unemployment is already high, and fostered a deeply disturbing, yet widely accepted, culture of serious exploitation.

Apathy is rife. Some people even try to justify preying on vulnerable workers from developing countries, saying: “they’re getting paid more than they would back home” and “the workers are complicit too”. The workers’ unwillingness to speak out only protects the sham contractor and makes it more difficult for authorities to protect others.      

Having so many unlawful non-citizens in Australia raises serious national security issues.  The complicated cross-jurisdiction structure of the offending and the evidential burden make it very difficult for authorities to act.

As Immigration Minister in the Howard Government, Philip Ruddock announced a review into illegal work in 1999, resulting in a range of measures to improve compliance, including tougher sanctions and education campaigns. In 2010, a review by Stephen Howells found it was “the most significant problem facing Australian migration authorities”.

Regional media reports and anecdotal evidence presented to my office suggests the problem has worsened. That’s why Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan and I brought stakeholders together in Brisbane early last year to discuss the cause and to identify possible solutions.

One suggestion was for workers to attach payslips to their second year visa applications as proof they’ve completed the 88 days of specified work. They argued it would prevent contractors from demanding lump sum payments and sexual favours in exchange for signing the form. The change wouldn’t create any additional red tape for law abiding employers.

They said passport photo ID should be added to Visa Entitlement Verification Online (VEVO), to make it harder for illegal workers to share the same visa number, and there should be closer monitoring of the people registering to become migration agents or ABN holders.  

While I would welcome the introduction of measures such as these, they would only address very specific aspects of what is a much larger problem.

Stakeholders said creating more hoops for farmers to jump through would only make the problem worse, and called for greater enforcement of existing laws.

Under the Coalition, in 2013-14 the number of Illegal Worker Warning Notices issued increased 201 per cent compared to the previous year, and the number of illegal workers located increased 18 per cent. So far this financial year, six employers have been fined a combined total of more than $32,000 for employing illegal workers.

The National Party has supported my call for a multi-jurisdictional taskforce.  I’d like to see some of the funds we’ve saved with the closure of immigration detention facilities, spent on an undercover operation to shine the light on this “seedy underbelly” once and for all. 

Putting an end to this scourge is everyone’s responsibility; starting with the people that set the farm gate price!    


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