Culture

‘Four Corners’ Ripped The Lid Off The Exploitation Of Migrant Workers On Australian Farms Last Night

A stack of the food you buy in the supermarket was picked and packed in Australia -- by wage slaves.

In a harrowing hour of television that aired last night, ABC Four Corners reporters Caro Meldrum-Hanna and Ali Russell went inside the local supply chains of Coles, Woolworths and Aldi, uncovering appalling stories of abuse, exploitation and greed –migrant workers, being paid as little as $4 an hour, are subjected to rampant underpayment, sexual harassment and even assault.

The trap for these abused workers, who are in Australia on 417 Working Holiday Visas, is set when they are employed by unscrupulous labour hire firms who on-sell labour to Australian factories and farms. Using this model, factory owners are effectively able to outsource the responsibility to pay their workers fairly or ensure their conditions. While there are legitimate reasons for using labour hire, the National Union of Workers (NUW) has uncovered evidence of firms stealing worker’s salaries, charging excessive rents on substandard accommodation and even demanding sexual favours from workers in return for signing visa applications.

One worker told Four Corners how he had worked up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week at the Baiada chicken factory in Adelaide, only to have nearly $30,000 of his wages stolen by his labour hire firm. Molly and Katie, two British backpackers, were forced into what they called “slave labour” and admonished for not being the “Asian girls” that the boss had ordered. In another case, a labour hire firm set up an ABN and an entire Pty Ltd company in the name of migrant employee Pedro Vannea in order to obscure they were underpaying him.

However, the nadir of this sordid tale came from Gippsland in regional Victoria, and a 21-year-old migrant worker named Winnie. Winnie was working for Covino, a firm that produces salads for supermarkets and lettuce for KFC, on contract from labour hire firm Chompran Enterprises. While the NUW alleges migrant workers on Covino farms are being robbed of up to $7 every hour they work, money was only the start of Winnie’s ordeal.

After a workplace accident which severed the nerves in her index finger, she was invited to her boss’ house to receive her pay. While there, she was forced on to the man’s bed and assaulted, his force causing her recent stitches to burst. “I knew my hand was bleeding” she told Four Corners, “even though I tried with all my strength… I couldn’t push him away.” Despite reporting her allegations to police five months ago, Covino continued to employ the man responsible.

Until last night.

Whatever you might think of the union movement, the work of the NUW in bringing this story out of the darkness is laudable. Because many of these workers are of Asian background with limited English skills, it’s easy for employers to convince them that such schemes are legal, and all the more difficult for the workers to obtain help or legal advice. The sheer number of these contractors, and the ease in setting up such a firm, makes it nearly impossible for the Immigration Department to monitor it.

In response, the NUW has launched the Fair Food Australia campaign calling on the supermarket chains to sign their Fair Food Compact. This document puts an obligation on the supermarkets — who profit from the fruits of this slave labour — to have better oversight of their supply chains. It demands stronger workplace protections, the empowerment of workers and a ban on what it calls “dodgy labour hire contractors”. While this is obviously a complex issues, with political, legal and ethical implications, there are ways that we as consumers can encourage change. It begins at the checkout, and where we choose to spend our money.

The NUW first alerted Coles, Woolworths and Aldi to these concerns in October last year, and have been frustrated by a lack of progress. In a statement issued to Four Corners, Coles said that they were “committed to ethical sourcing” and expects all of its suppliers to “comply with Australian law,” while Woolworths takes its ethical sourcing obligations “very seriously”. In light of last night’s revelations, including that they’ve known about these issues back in October, is that enough?

Not according to the NUW. “Coles and Woolworths claim that their Ethical Sourcing Codes of conduct ensure that fresh food products are ethically produced,” the union said. “The reality facing workers on these farms proves that this is not true.

“Producers are told to comply with Codes of Conduct on one hand, then asked to provide cheaper and cheaper product on the other. When Producers are confronted with the choice between complying with Code standards and losing a supply contract with a big supermarket, they will always chose to cut corners.”

But it looks like the Four Corners report is already starting to have an effect, with the Victorian Government announcing it’s beginning an inquiry into labour exploitation this morning. What it finds should be pretty interesting to watch.

You can find out more by watching the full Four Corners episode here, and sign the NUW’s petition here.

Anthony Bieniak is young Melbourne writer, web designer and general trouble-maker with a background in refugee advocacy. He tweets from here, and publishes occasional unedited rants on his blog.

Feature image via NUW/Facebook.