Who’s picking on our harvest?

Sorting good from bad in the fruit game


Horticulture
Jeff Zanette, Lismore, says a hands-on approach to managing labour is essential for success in small farming.

Jeff Zanette, Lismore, says a hands-on approach to managing labour is essential for success in small farming.

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The image of pickers as victims of Australia's horticultural harvest is a strong one at the moment but farmers who pay their wages tell a different story.

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Recent revelations from a backpacker harvester have questioned the legality of some contract labour operators.

In the Buzzfeed epilogue Joshua Fox describes his blackbird treatment at the hands of unscrupulous middlemen who supply labour to farmers.

Regardless of this man’s apparent work eithic, the reader can’t help feel moved by his descriptions of working for free on a Woolgoolga blueberry farm or pruning apple trees until his hands bled in Batlow. Neither did they sit well with the horticultural industry.

A coastal blueberry producer who wished to remain anonymous said he had issues with shady contractors not doing the right thing. Other growers did too. “It’s a common problem,” he said.

“There have been cases where producers pay the contractor correctly and they pass on to their workers just $10-$12/hr. There are scam operators who set up and suddenly disappear,” he said.

The Fair Work Ombudsman is currently addressing the issue, with a spokesman quioted as saying, “Preventing the deliberate exploitation of young people and visa holders who work in low-skilled positions is a priority.”

“The agriculture industry accounted for three per cent of the disputes the Fair Work Ombudsman helped to resolve in 2016-17, but ten per cent of the Agency’s enforcement outcomes involved employers in this sector.”

Farmer’s risk

Meanwhile, the farmer paying labour to pick blueberries forks out two thirds of the return as labour costs. With the market flush with product poorly picked fruit is easily knocked down in price. During October trays of fruit sold for as low as $1 when they cost the producer $15. At the same time so much rain after so little all winter delivered difficult fungal challenges.

The role of the hand picker in getting soft, plump fruit into the punnet is now critical as ever. There is little slack given to employees who chat, giggle and throw berries at each other.

Never-the-less farmers continue to pay the slow workers. Labour by law demands $22.86/hr and 15 per cent more for piece rate plus super and payroll tax.

Workers are paid by the bucket but to work out the piece rate an average is selected from the gang of workers, not just the guns.

“We might have to put a call into a labour contractor during busy periods and suddenly we have 80 per cent inexperienced workers,” the grower said. “It’s things like this that can make it very hard for the producer.”

These days people of cultural background are typically the hardest workers in the field particularly Asians who have an ability and fitness to pick berries, even when temperatures climb above 40 degrees.

This grower’s hardest working backpackers take home $400/day, with the average earning between $180-$200. When it comes to who’s hardest, the grower says Europeans and most Australians fail to make top 10.

“On a 40 degree day those guys are at the beach,” he said.

Hands on management

At Mr Zanette’s orchard, near Lismore, backpacker or grey nomad labour is the only way to get fruit picked.

“Many young generation Australians are not likely to make the grade except for those coming from a farming background,” he said.

Asian backpackers were by far and away the best, although his two favourite were a young Belgian couple who worked and lived on his property, sleeping in their van.

“She was the best paid picker I’ve ever had and after day two she was teaching others,” he said. “Her partner’s work ethic was as good as hers. He worked hard and both were thoughtful, kind and willing to help with all chores. Let me tell you we all had tears in our eyes when they moved on.”

Mr Zanette said a hands-on approach to managing labour was essential for a small farmer’s success.

“I usually find my workforce through Harvest Trail, but I scrutinise them myself.

“I’ve never underpaid their hourly rate - I don’t pay by piece work - but I’ve warned some of them that if they don’t perform I will ask them to leave. We expect a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.”

“Some come for a working holiday and get on with the job, others just want enough money to party hard at night and they come back the next day half stoned or still asleep. Generally cashed-up Europeans are here for the fun. Asians, with the exception of some of the wealthy ones, are more accepting of the work. They might be here for a holiday but they also come to earn money - and send some of it back home.

“Without the dependable backpackers and the older grey nomads we simply wouldn’t get the job done. But a complaint I hear across all industries is that, generally speaking, they can’t get people to work.”

Doing the heavy lifting

There still remains the issue of pickers who are victims of the system.

This reporter spoke to a young Italian worker now serving hamburgers near an American airbase at Aviano north of Venice. He had spent a year downunder, earning up to $400/day harvesting watermelons in Bundaberg. To make that sort of money before the sun went down he had to dead-lift 17,000 kilos of the volleyball sized fruit.

Another job picking onions earned him $2/hr and he left before the day finished, willing to take the loss just to get out of there.

“My contractor only hired Italians and all we spoke was Italian,” he recalled. “It was like I wasn’t even in Australia.”

Would he go back? Not likely. “I’ve got a better deal here,” he said.

Parminder Kaur, India, and Michelle Steer, England, are part of a huge army of pickers harvesting blueberries on the North Coast. The flexible backpacker work force is integral to most horticultural enterprises in Australia.

Parminder Kaur, India, and Michelle Steer, England, are part of a huge army of pickers harvesting blueberries on the North Coast. The flexible backpacker work force is integral to most horticultural enterprises in Australia.

Enforcement a priority

“Addressing and preventing the deliberate exploitation of young people and visa holders who work in low-skilled positions is a priority for the Fair Work Ombudsman,” said a spokesman for the government agency. “Labour supply in the agriculture sector has been a focus as we work towards this.”

“The agriculture industry accounted for three per cent of the disputes the Fair Work Ombudsman helped to resolve in 2016-17, but ten per cent of the Agency’s enforcement outcomes involved employers in this sector.

“We work with employers, associations and governments to help enforce workplace laws in labour supply chains in the horticulture sector.  Our work with this sector promotes employment arrangements that are compliant with Australian workplace laws, with a particular focus on those businesses which engage workers via labour-hire operators.

“Last year the Fair Work Ombudsman’s Overseas Worker’s Team released an Inquiry report after it concluded its Inquiry into the experiences of overseas workers in Australia on the 417 Working Holiday visa, following a spike in requests for assistance from backpackers over the preceding three year period.

“One of the central findings from this Inquiry report was that the requirement for 417 visa holders to complete 88 days of agricultural work to be eligible for a second-year visa was having the unintended consequence of driving some vulnerable workers to enter into potentially unsafe situations and to agree to work for below minimum entitlements. It was also found that visa holders were reluctant to report their employers’ non-compliance with workplace laws due to concerns that employers would not provide the required evidence that they had completed the 88-day requirement.

“The 417 Visa Inquiry connects closely with the Fair Work Ombudsman’s Harvest Trail Inquiry which is ongoing.

“The Harvest Trail Inquiry is focusing on the horticulture and viticulture sectors nationally in response to ongoing requests for assistance from employees in the sector, persistent underpayments and confusion among growers and labour-hire contractors about their workplace obligations. The findings of the Inquiry will be released at its conclusion.

“The Fair Work Ombudsman also currently has a test case before the Court relating to piece work agreements in the hope that the outcome will provide guidance to the horticulture and labour-hire businesses that engage workers on piece rates.”

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