Young Workers Picking Berries In Northern NSW Were Paid As Little As $3 An Hour

A 28 year old German earned $3 per hour during a shift, while Pacific Islander workers were charged the same rent to live in converted shipping containers as a 3 bedroom house.

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Working Holiday Makers (WHMs) continue to be exploited during the COVID-19 pandemic, being paid as little as $3 an hour, while being charged three to four times the median rent of the neighbourhoods they’re working in.

Young travellers who come to Australia on WHM visas have to complete 88 days of regional work in order to secure a second year working holiday visa. Of the 85,000 WHMs present in Australia as of June this year, an estimated 2,000 were present in the Coffs Coast region of Northern NSW. It’s one of the state’s top tourist destinations, known for its beaches, wildlife and, yes, the Big Banana. So you can relax, have an adventure, complete your visa requirement, and see Australia’s pride and joy. What more could you want?

Well it turns out, a lot more.

A 28-year-old German recorded earning $3 per hour during a shift, and averaged just $6.21 per hour over 17 days of work with a local subcontractor, picking blueberries.

At the same time, landlords charged between $125 and $150 per person for 9-12 person share houses, making about three times the median rent of certain suburbs in the region. One cluster of four properties was charging 45 occupants about $1,500 per week despite the median rent for similar properties in the same suburb being $480 per week. And it gets worse: Pacific Islander workers were being charged the same price as a 3- or 4-bedroom house to live in literal shipping containers, which had been turned into in 4-bed dorms.

Two Australian workers also claimed to not have been paid for several weeks of work — one documented abuse from the contractor when trying to get paid, while the other alleged she was forced to work near an active bushfire alongside hundreds of other workers during the height of the 2019/20 bushfire season.

The report that contained these findings was conducted by the McKell Institute, and while it looked specifically into Coffs Coast region, it made it clear this was not an isolated incident.

“The unfortunate truth is that, despite its geographic focus, this report is not a unique exposé. It adds to a large number of reports and investigations that prove the fundamental problems with the WHM program that have led to widespread exploitation in Australian horticulture,” it read.

It’s true. The industry has been the subject of a Four Corners’ investigation, a senate inquiry, and the government’s own Migrant Worker Taskforce found 15 percent of workers picking fruit and vegetables reported being paid as little as $5 per hour. Still, nothing is being done.

Earlier this year, Sherry Huang wrote of her own experience working in the industry as a non-European migrant worker back in 2010.

“The three sexual assaults I personally took to the police on behalf of friends have still never been acted upon; the police told us there was no point as the victims would have left the country by the time the case was tried.”

Not much has changed, as “workers are still denied medical care when they are injured because non-European workers don’t enjoy reciprocal rights under Medicare, and labour hire companies typically fail to register our names for WorkCover. A man I know lost three fingers in a meat grinder — would you trade six months on the minimum wage for three of your fingers?”

While the pandemic has led to farms experiencing labour shortages for picking crops because of the industry’s over-reliance on overseas workers, the Australians trying to fill in and take the work for fair pay are not being hired.

A recruitment company received 1,500 applicants to do farm work during the pandemic, but they were not able to secure a job for even one of them claiming. “We started making contact with farmers to gauge if they wanted people to go out there or not. We spoke to the Department of Agriculture to see if they could push it, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference because the farmers don’t want to change their habits,” they told The New Daily.

The industry seemingly relies on the power imbalance between themselves and workers who need work to tick of a visa requirement to continue to their illegal labour practices.

Yet Australian JobSeekers are being told to go work on farms, and the Agriculture Minister David Littleproud seemed to think if they said yes, they could make $3,800 per week. But at a rate of $3 per hour, even if you worked 24 hours a day for all seven days of a week, you’d only make $504. You’d have to work non-stop for 7.5 weeks to make $3,800.

The report has called for a royal commission given the widespread nature of the exploitation and the national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, Daniel Walton agrees.

“Every single inquiry has come back with the same answer: that this industry is more than a few rotten apples. The only course of action that is available is a wholesale, deep investigation and review. A royal commission is the most appropriate vehicle for that,” he said.