The dangers of farm work in Australia


Behind the picture-perfect postcards, modern slavery is prevalent in the Australian agricultural industry.

By Christina Stenseth and Apsara Sabaratnam

For over four decades Australian farmers have relied on vulnerable temporary migrant workers and Working Holiday Makers to undertake farm work that is insecure, itinerant, low paid, exploitative and often unsafe. These workers are preferred over locals as they are young, inexperienced and not well versed in Australian industrial relations laws. This was until 2020 when COVID-19 reached Australia’s shores.

The dark underbelly

Farm workers often face exploitation in their workplaces as well as from transport and accommodation providers. Many of these workers fit the definition of modern slaves as they are severely underpaid or not paid at all and in instances have their wages stolen from them. They are also exposed to unsafe working conditions, abuse, harassment and bullying and even threatened with deportation. In some cases, workers have been denied medical care resulting in a number of avoidable deaths. This is because the workplace health and safety standards on some farms are very poor resulting in 174 deaths in the agricultural industry between 2015 and 2019. Additionally, there is no legal requirement for an employer to provide water or toileting facilities in the field in Australia despite the extreme heat workers can be exposed to.

Furthermore, in most states and territories there is no option to charge employers with industrial manslaughter in the event of a farm worker dying on the job due to the farm’s failure to comply with minimum health and safety standards.

Expansion of the work and holiday program to seventeen new countries

We have heard all year how farmers are stuck with rotting crops with no one to pick the fruit or vegetables. Following Australia’s COVID-19 international border closure in March 2020 there has been an estimated 80,000 drop in Working Holiday Makers and a 4,000 dip in Pacific Islander workers.

The farming industry was dealt a further blow when the United Kingdom and Australia signed a Free Trade Agreement in June 2021. As part of this agreement the visa requirement for young Britons to complete 88 days of farm work as part of their Working Holiday Maker program has been waived. This will lead to a further 10,000 farm worker shortage per year in Australia.

This has led to farmers calling on the federal government to look for new ways to attract new categories of migrant workers. The Federal government has responded by looking at ways to extend this work to refugees and asylum seekers, international students, migrant workers who have lost their jobs and many more.

Australia is also considering a proposal to expand the Work and Holiday visa program to include an additional seventeen countries. Already at an economic disadvantage due to the comparatively higher cost of living in Australia, these new workers are ripe for exploitation within the agricultural sector.

Changes to student visa conditions

To make matters worse as of 2021 international students are no longer limited to working 40 hours per fortnight, providing they work in the agriculture sector.

This puts international students at great risk of being exploited. If these working conditions are unacceptable for British citizens, why should they be allowed for citizens of other nations.

Farm work is unregulated and is putting young and inexperienced workers in harm’s way. It is highly likely that these workers will be exploited by unscrupulous and criminal employers, labour hire companies as well as accommodation and transportation providers.

Another alarming matter is that there is no pathway to permanent residency for these migrant workers. There is need for reform and the whole system requires an overhaul.

Advocates – the authors of this article included – are raising awareness to put an end to the exploitation being carried out on Australian soil.

The film 88 Days a Slave

88 Days A Slave follows the experiences of vulnerable backpackers who are required to undertake 88 days of farm work in-order to extend their visas under the Working Holiday Maker program. This poorly regulated program designed by the Australian Government traps many young workers in slave-like conditions on farms across regional, rural and remote Australia. This is a timely and important project that uses first-hand accounts of young people to highlight the prevelance of Modern Slavery in Australia.

You can read more about the film on the 88 Days a Slave website.

The 88 Days a Slave team is hoping to raise enough money for an essential two-week shoot around Queensland, which will allow them to record the stories of key characters.

For anyone in need of support

88 Days and Counting, led by Andrew Bretherton, is an organisation campaigning to raise awareness around working holiday makers’ financial exploitation, emotional and sexual abuse caused by the mandatory Australian Federal Governments Working Holiday Maker Program. The purpose of the group is to provide help and support to WHMs in Australia, as well as raise awareness and conduct advocacy and campaigning activities to promote the issues of exploitation within the Australian agricultural industry.

Christina Stenseth is an emerging writer and director originally from Norway, and a former working holiday maker.

Apsara Sabaratnam is a Tamil Australian woman and Greens member who teaches at university in the areas of organisation behaviour and workplace diversity.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.

Hero image: Randall Wood.

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