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Farm Workers Needed - Opportunity to Organise

Written by: Ned K. on 25 January 2021


Covid-19 placed restrictions on the number of people coming in to Australia, including temporary visa farm workers.

Farmers who rely on overseas workers to pick and pack a wide range of fruit and vegetable crops in Australia have been active in pushing the federal government to change quarantine policy to make it easier for temporary visa workers to come in to the country to work. 

Farmers have class differences within these workers. Some are "hands-on'" rural workers as well as small property owners. Others are slightly larger owners and do not work "hands-on" themselves. Then there are the large agribusinesses where the owners are far away in a business office somewhere.

All of these owners have one thing in common. They need workers to pick and pack the crops. For many decades, the workers have been sourced from back packers, students and overseas students and migrant workers on temporary visas or migrant workers who have permanent residency but still waiting in the queue for citizenship.

The dependence on overseas workers on temporary visas is high. So high, that despite Covid-19 quarantine requirements and restrictions on the number of people coming into the country, the federal government has recently approved a restart of the Pacific Workers and Seasonal Worker Visa program.
However, since August last year only 1500 workers have arrived. The National Farmers Federation says it needs 26,000 such farm workers for March 2021!

Queensland Horticultural body Growcom claim that 67 growers of fruit and vegetable crops in Queensland have already lost $42 million since December 2020 because they could not get enough workers to pick and pack.

The situation of dependence of temporary migrant farm workers is similar to the dependence of undocumented farm workers in the USA. In both countries for decades there has been struggle for better wages and conditions by these workers. 

In Australia, the farm owners, led by big agribusinesses, have resisted attempts by these workers to organise collectively and also refused to lift working conditions to standards that the majority of people in Australia would agree were acceptable minimum standards. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed this situation of dependence on super exploited migrant farm workers.

However, this crisis of labour shortage is also an opportunity. Some unions such as United Workers Union have allocated organiser resources for farm workers with some success, in forcing labour hire companies who provide the labour for farmers' use to agree to right of return each picking season of each year for workers. Unions through organising have also reduced the occurrence of wage swindles (wage theft) where workers were paid way below the award minimum.

However, much more organising needs to be done across a farm worker workforce of well over 100,000 workers. In past decades, young activists would often work in factories and contribute to the organising efforts with co-workers. The modern-day equivalent of those factories includes the farms. Perhaps an organising opportunity and experience for young activists, especially at a time when labour is in short supply.  


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