December 2020 – January 2021

The Nation Reviewed

Picking losers

By James Boyce
There are good reasons why Australians won’t pick fruit

The refrain that “Australians won’t pick fruit” has been loudly proclaimed in public discourse for decades. Long cited as proof of the dangers of introducing a dignified unemployment-benefits system, when compulsion and poverty didn’t change aversion to hard yakka in the bush, the working holiday visa was amended to ensure that foreigners must either do this work or leave the country. Now, with border restrictions and most backpackers having returned home, the focus is back on lazy local labour. An EY report suggested there is a shortfall of 26,000 workers. The National Farmers Federation warns that produce worth $6.3 billion is at risk of being left to rot. The crisis can only be resolved by asking a new question: Why won’t Australians pick fruit?

So ingrained is the assumption that local people have an innate distaste for farm work, that it seems surprising Australians picked and harvested most of the nation’s fruit and vegetables as recently as the 1990s. Competition ensured small pay rises over time and, while the work was hard, returns could be reasonable.

The critical change came when the Howard government introduced an extension to the working holiday visa conditional on three months’ labour first being completed in strictly designated occupations in regional Australia, of which the only readily available option for most backpackers was to help with the harvest.

The change in the fruit-picking labour supply was profound. Farms outside harsh and remote environments were inundated with workers seeking employment to extend their 417 visa by a second year (and since 2019, provided they undertake even more regional work, a third) so they could then return to the cities, earn decent wages and continue their travels.

The competition to get the necessary 88 days of work documented was so intense that backpacker blogs became full of stories of abuse. Enough of these made it into the mainstream media – especially when there was sexual harassment, violence, and exploitation of a crude and overt kind – to force the Fair Work Ombudsman to investigate. Its 2018 “Harvest Trail Inquiry” report found more than half of the businesses reviewed had breached workplace laws through falsified records, withheld payslips, unauthorised deductions and the underpayment of 2500 workers.

Nevertheless, the overall impression remained that this was principally a problem of a few rotten apples. None of the stories of abuse had much political impact; foreigners were lucky to be here at all, the job was being done, and what was the alternative? As Agriculture Minister David Littleproud recently pointed out, even with the below-subsistence-level Newstart Allowance “we couldn’t get people off the couch to go and pick fruit”.

I picked cherries over two recent summers. Harvesting the red gems in Tasmania is very different from picking mangoes in Daly River, strawberries in Bowen or bananas in Carnarvon, but given that the loud voices dominating public discourse – agribusiness heads, farmer lobby group representatives and wide-hat politicians – have rarely undertaken casual fruit picking themselves (although Littleproud claims experience with watermelons), it is important that more pickers get a say.

The reason I decided not to pick fruit again is that the “lug” rate, the payment received for each box of cherries, had not increased in 20 years. This reflects the fact that the return is set by the orchard owner (often large investors) without oversight or involvement by a union, state regulator or the Fair Work Commission. Almost no one among the 100 plus workers in the orchards I worked in averaged the minimum wage for the total time they worked. It was true that on days when all the stars aligned – weather, bountiful trees, healthy fruit – it was possible to earn more than this. But that was not the norm. Despite having to be available every day from the designated start of the season, there was no on-call rate while workers wait for the first fruit to be ready, the next variety to ripen or when picking is suddenly stopped by the weather being too wet or hot. Nothing was paid for the waiting around on the farm receiving instructions, undertaking training, moving between orchards and so on. Much unpaid work was required – we were strictly instructed to ensure trees were totally clean of fruit, even though most trees had a significant proportion of fruit with mould or marks that excluded them from the lug. One memorable morning, I cleared tree after mouldy tree for four hours till we were allowed to move on, with the $7.50 lug still not full at the end of it. Other trees were so light-on that there might be less than a dollar’s worth of scattered fruit to be found on them. Full lugs were regularly inspected and, if damaged, imperfect or stalkless fruit was found, the money earned for a hard-filled lug could be withheld altogether. (Tasmanian export cherries must be perfect – in some parts of Asia, we were told, they can fetch up to a dollar each.) Two or more strikes and workers could be summarily dismissed, with no further explanation required.

It was surely not surprising that, except for a couple of long-term unemployed (for which the employer was receiving a government handout to have them on the books), there were almost no other Australian pickers. There were, though, plenty of local workers around – indeed, they dominated all the non-picking jobs, such as in the sorting sheds. What was the difference? These positions received a set hourly rate, which guaranteed everyone at least got the minimum wage. Locals were invariably surprised I chose to pick fruit; pickers were the bottom of the remunerative pile. None of the pay or conditions was against our vaguely worded contracts.

This was not a “bad boss” experience. I changed companies the second year, mistakenly hoping that this might be the case. Both were considered respectable employers in the wider community, and it seems that no law was being broken.

The companies anticipated workers regularly quitting or being sacked, by initially employing far more pickers than they needed, ensuring the orchard was crowded and competition for good trees intense. A proportion of the payment owed on each lug was withheld until the end of the season was announced, to ensure there was a further incentive to stay. A seemingly endless supply of vans and cars full of backpackers desperate to get on the books kept workers focused. Everyone I spoke to put up with whatever was offered because their overriding objective was to complete sufficient hours of work to become eligible for another year on their working holiday visa.

It is the deplorable pay and conditions, which have inevitably resulted from this oversupply of labour in an unregulated market, that have created the local worker shortage the industry now faces.

The truth is that there are good reasons why Australians won’t pick fruit.

The solution is equally straightforward. An independent umpire, either the Fair Work Commission or a new regulatory body, must set rates and conditions as part of a respectable contract between employee and employer. This should be done not according to fanciful estimates of how much money can be theoretically made by “hard workers”, but according to how much money has actually been made by real workers. Sample company books should be surveyed to ensure an empirical basis for deciding pay in each sector. Whenever farmers require workers to be available for work, an on-call allowance should be paid. Employers should be penalised whenever they require unpaid work to be done. And where accommodation is provided (including when it is just a field in which to pitch a tent), tariffs should be monitored.

None of the necessary reforms is radical or new. Australia led the world in proactively regulating wages and conditions to ensure fairness in the workplace. Three-time prime minister Alfred Deakin forged his nation-building partnership with the nascent Labor Party on the basis of ensuring “fair and reasonable” wages for all workers prescribed by the Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. As W.K. Hancock documented in his classic tome, Australia (1930), “fair and reasonable” became the incessant refrain of Australian democracy – repeated in judicial decisions, statutes, parliamentary debates, trade union speeches and platform orations. It is time that it is heard again.

From orchards to nursing homes and security firms, COVID-19 has revealed the dangers of replacing Australia’s once celebrated system of wage-setting with one of the most casualised and piece-rate dependent workforces in the Western world.

The federal government’s response to the agricultural labour shortage in its most recent budget did include some practical ideas. As well as support for the comparatively small Seasonal Worker Programme, which brings in workers from the Pacific and Timor-Leste, and the waiving of visa extension fees, there are grants available to help cover relocation expenses to regional areas, and a promise to provide young people who earn $15,000 in farm work during 2021 with immediate access to Youth Allowance.

The accelerated pathway to financial support during study provides a genuine incentive for gap-year students to pick fruit. I hope that young Australians take up this opportunity. A sojourn on a farm may not be the “great Instagram story” that Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack suggests, but it is an opportunity to engage with people from different cultures and backgrounds through dignified outdoor work.

But if these young people are to return for another season (and it is in the interest of everyone to have experienced pickers), and not become a new generation of proselytisers for not picking fruit, real regulatory reform needs to occur now.

Decisive government action can help reset the broken relationship between Australians and the farm, and ensure a sustainable labour supply made up of young and underemployed local people, seasonal workers, overseas students and backpackers. Language, culture and life stories can then be shared in orchard and field, the worth of meaningful manual labour understood, and money saved. Solving the labour shortage on farms does not require visa holders to be left with no other options, welfare payments to be lowered or the unemployed vilified. Old-fashioned regulation that guarantees fair and reasonable wages and conditions is the way to get the fruit picked.

James Boyce

James Boyce is a Hobart-based writer and historian. His latest book is Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens.

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