‘Bloody hard work’: Harvest trail pickers say pay is so bad only Centrelink lets them survive

Workers on Australia's harvest trail are at risk of modern slavery-like conditions.

Workers on Australia's harvest trail are at risk of modern slavery-like conditions. Photo: Getty

Job seekers working on Australia’s harvest trail say they are being forced to supplement their low wages with Centrelink payments, casting doubt on the Morrison government’s insistence that locals can earn a decent wage picking fruit.

It comes as Sarina Russo, Australia’s largest private job provider, admitted in a submission to the Modern Slavery Register that the harvest trail is one of the main risks when placing job seekers into employment.

‘Harvest labour positions where they are residing in accommodation supplied by the host’ is ranked towards the top of job seeker placements at risk of modern-day slavery in Australia, the report said.

Between January and April, at least 3600 job seekers were placed into harvest jobs by job providers, the latest data from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment reveals.

A further 1900 job seekers applied for positions but were rejected. During this period, hundreds more contacted legal aid for help.

JobWatch, an employment rights community legal centre that provides support to workers in Victoria, Queensland, and Tasmania had more than 500 calls from people working within the agricultural, forestry and fishing industries – the majority of which were picking fruit and vegetables.

Many of the issues related to piece rates – the method of payment offered to harvest workers whereby they are paid by how much they pick, rather than an hourly rate.

“The scope of the problem is far greater than what is officially reported to enforcement agencies,” JobWatch executive director Zana Bytheway said.

Cases JobWatch has worked on showing that “current piecework picking rates need to be tested for accuracy when in practice,” Ms Bytheway said.

“There have been cases where the pickers had already been working for some time and were demonstrably faster than their peers, yet they still failed to earn the equivalent pay-rate under the relevant classification in the Award,” she said.

To stop exploitation, Ms Bytheway said workers needed to be made aware of their rights when they start harvest trail jobs.

Pickers need Centrelink to live

Last year, farmers blasted the high rate of JobSeeker payment, saying it was contributing to a labour shortage.

They said the price of fruit and vegetables would skyrocket due to a shortage of migrant labour and the fact no locals would take the jobs.

The federal government also hit out at job seekers, claiming they were too lazy pick fruit.

But locals currently working on the harvest trail told The New Daily they had been forced to supplement their low income with Centrelink payments.

Noel Oz, 51, has been working on the harvest trail in Shepparton.

On average, Mr Oz makes around $60 to $80 a day. He pays $165 a week for the cabin he shares with three men from the Congo who are also picking fruit.

“You’re not going to get rich doing this,” Mr Oz told The New Daily. 

“If it wasn’t for Centrelink, I probably wouldn’t be doing it. I wouldn’t be able to afford to live – I couldn’t pay the rent. Thank God for our country’s welfare system.”

Mr Oz said the crews working on picking fruit are diverse – young and old Australians, alongside migrant and some undocumented workers.

He said he waited wait months to get the government’s $6000 relocation assistance, which was designed to lure pickers out to the regions.

“I think a lot of people come up here thinking they’re going to get the cash … I’m yet to meet anyone that has got their money back,” Mr Oz said.

Other local farm workers, who did not want to be named, told The New Daily they had been waiting more than five months for their relocation assistance payment from the government.

“Honestly, it’s bloody hard work, it’s not for everyone. Unfortunately, some people are doing it tough up here. You’ve got older people on the dole …  a lot of them are struggling.

“If it wasn’t for [the JobSeeker payments] it wouldn’t be worth it.”

Hard yakka on the harvest trail

Job provider Sarina Russo did not answer The New Daily’s questions relating to how many people they have sent out to work on farms in the last six months, and how they protected them from modern slavery.

In the company’s statement to the Modern Slavery Register, it stressed “no modern slavery was evident” when creating the report, but the company did admit there were “inherent industry risks or circumstances”.

Sending job seekers into situations where a labour-hire company or farmer organises the accommodation for them was identified as a key risk.

Antipoverty Centre spokesperson Kristin O’Connell said it was “no secret what is happening in harvest labour”.

“We’ve got job agencies like Sarina Russo shamelessly, openly, admitting that these risks exist,” Ms O’Connell said.

“Thousands of people are so desperate to just get a tiny bit more money to help them survive, that they are begging for these jobs anyway,” she said.

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