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Keeping our farm workers - and keeping them safe

It’s a well-known fact that for many Australian farmers, finding workers can be hard at the best of times. Distance, changing work patterns, a limited pool of local labour and tight margins all contribute to this state of affairs.

Overcoming this challenge involves telling our story in a way that inspires newcomers out to the farm, and encourages more people into agricultural careers. Ultimately, it is about creating a bright future for Australian farming; one that capitalises on the significant opportunities ahead.

In 2014, the National Farmers’ Federation undertook a Farm Business Survey to better understand employment and labour-related issues affecting the sector. Approximately 500 businesses responded to the Survey, with results painting a consistent picture of labour issues faced by a typical small Australian farm business. One in two businesses expected profitability and growth to improve over the next three to five years, but only one in five expected to expand their workforce. Almost 50 per cent of respondents said that they cannot afford to employ additional workers, with the same number indicating that a shortage of skilled and committed labour was the greatest impediment to their business. Of the challenges ahead, survey respondents were most concerned about financial viability, government regulations and skill and labour shortages.

All this confirms what we already knew – that taking advantage of future opportunities will depend on our access to a reliable and flexible labour pool. Which is why the sector just can’t afford stories of vulnerable farm workers being treated badly. Over the past 18 months, a number of these stories have emerged – covering wage shortfalls, withheld travel documents and excessive deductions for travel and accommodation costs. We have heard of the almost mythical disappearing white van, full of work teams with questionable visa status and work rights. We have Taskforce Cadena, a multi-jurisdictional taskforce established to crack down on migrant workers, which followed Operation Cloudburst, literally bursting on to the scene amid flouro vests and more white vans (of the registered, government-owned type), standing ready to deport illegal workers and put a stop to any profiting from their labour.

These stories are not typical of what happens on Australian farms, and nor are they what we would accept for our own families and friends. Importantly, we can’t afford the reputational damage these stories cause. Sometimes shunned by local communities, or cut off from traditional labour sources by changes in government policy – thousands of decent, hardworking farmers also pay the price when the unscrupulous actions of few let us down.
National Farmers' Federation, GM of Workplace Relations & Legal Affairs, Sarah McKinnon

When it comes to protecting overseas workers, the ‘red flags’ are relatively common and easy to identify. If workers are asked to pay for the privilege of a job offer, or to hand over their passport, alarm bells should be ringing. If charges for group travel and accommodation seem excessive, they may well indicate deeper problems with how workers are being paid. For farmers, choosing good contractors is essential – although in many regions, the reality is there isn’t much choice, and the only way to head off a harvest workforce crisis is to try and plan well in advance during quieter times of the year.

For workers, and particularly for women, travelling in groups is recommended when going to remote areas where there is often limited mobile phone and internet connection (an all too common feature of life in rural Australia). But perhaps the most important thing that overseas workers can do to protect themselves while in Australia is to stay within their visa conditions. Not to overstay a visa, and not to work more than their visa allows. The simple fact is that when migrants are themselves in breach of the law, they are much more vulnerable to exploitation, as the threat of deportation looms large both from government and the unscrupulous few.

Australia has some of the strongest workplace laws in the world and we have strong support networks for those who need them. The key is knowing how to tap into them to get help when it is needed – an area where government can play a greater role.
National Farmers' Federation, GM of Workplace Relations & Legal Affairs, Sarah McKinnon

At the National Farmers’ Federation, we want everyone who comes and works on an Australian farm to have the opportunity of a great experience. It’s that experience that travels home with them, that is shared with their friends, and creates new connections in the years to come. We don’t support profit derived from exploitation, and we never will.

For more information, visit our Sustainable Employment Initiative page.

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