Calls for royal commission as report details allegations blueberry farmers pay workers $3 an hour
An investigation into the blueberry industry on the New South Wales north coast is alleging systemic wages theft and intentional worker underpayment by unscrupulous labour hire firms.
Research by the McKell Institute commissioned by the Australian Workers Union (AWU) claims contractors used by some farms in the Coffs Harbour region have convinced young foreign workers to accept below-award wages to roll over their working holiday visas.
The report Blue Harvest, released today, says some labour hire firms recruiting fruit pickers for the region are “severely and intentionally underpaying their workers” and often disappear when complaints about underpayments emerge.
“The dramatic growth of the blueberry sector in the absence of policy safeguards has made the region a target for nefarious labour hirers,” the report says.
An audit of job advertisements, published in the report, specific to the Coffs Coast blueberry region found some contractors offering pay rates as low as $60 for a day’s work.
The horticultural industry is estimated to have enticed 3,000 foreign labourers on Working Holiday Maker (WHM) visas every year with a renewal depending on completing 88 days of regional work.
The report says the Coffs Harbour coast is home to 65 per cent of Australia’s blueberries crop and had attracted more than 2,000 workers at the time of the investigation, which coincided with the 2020 harvest.
McKell Institute researcher Edward Cavanough, who co-authored the report for the AWU, says some foreign workers are being paid as little as $3 an hour.
“If workers were being paid the appropriate rate on these farms, it would be around $24 an hour. We’re very rarely seeing workers get that much,” Mr Cavanough said.
“Some of the stories have been absolutely harrowing. A lot of working holiday-makers are having terrible experiences with subcontractors.
“We’ve seen incidents of workers getting abused, trying to chase money from their employer. These are some of the worst cases of worker exploitation you’ll see in Australia.”
Workers interviewed in the report complain about a fluctuating daily “piece rate” and that employers change it each day depending on arbitrarily set “market rates” to ensure a workers’ pay remains well below the minimum wage.
“The ability of employers to reset piece rates each working day enables some employers to sustain low rates of pay for employees, irrespective of the fruit condition, while citing ‘market rates’ as a justification,” the report says.
The ABC has spoken to three foreign workers recruited to work on blueberry farms who claim to have been underpaid and exploited by labour hire firms in return for help in extending their visas.
“I was really surprised. I didn’t think this could happen in Australia. I had this image about the country that was very fair about working and wages,” says Argentinian worker Lautiro Wickmann.
“No one complains because we need the job. They know we are desperate for our pay slips.”
Isabel*, a backpacker from Ecuador, was unable to get hospitality work in Sydney during the pandemic and headed north to pick blueberries but found the per bucket or “piece rate” was barely enough to live on.
“When I arrived they told me they pay per bucket. It would be from $6 to $8. But in the first week, the rate was so low and I was only paid $120,” Isabel says.
“The thing is that I didn’t have enough time to complete my 88-day visa — so I was told it was that or nothing.”
Isabel told the ABC the unlawful behaviour by labour hire contractors “looks like and feels like modern slavery”.
Labour hire firms recruiting for the region refused to speak on the record when contacted by the ABC but denied claims that vulnerable foreign workers are being exploited or in some cases mistreated.
AWU national secretary Daniel Walton said the report confirmed a disturbing culture of intentional worker underpayment in Australia.
“We’ve seen worker exploitation with passports being taken, we’ve seen sexual assault and physical violence. The concerning thing for us is that it’s getting worse, not better,” Mr Walton said.
However, he defended the report’s decision not to name any labour hire firms or farms accused of wages theft.
“Quite frankly, putting the spotlight on them now is going to given them an opportunity to duck and hide and run away.”
Mr Walton criticised previous investigations for failing to clamp down on exploitation and said a royal commission was now necessary to safeguard worker rights.
“There is such a massive failing in this industry that a royal commission looks like the most appropriate way to put a stop to this,” Mr Walton said.
The ABC contacted three blueberry farms in the Coffs Harbour region for comment but calls were not returned.
A major supplier with farms on the Coffs Coast — not named in the report but cited by some aggrieved workers — refused to comment but said any allegations of wages theft should be referred directly to employers or the Fair Work Ombudsman.
The Fair Work Ombudsman was approached for comment.
*Name was changed