Rural unemployment and exploitation: scapegoating backpackers is not the answer

Backpackers are often exploited by rural employers.

Three unions aligned with the right faction of the ALP have called for the scrapping of the 88-day working holiday visa program. They claim this will cause farm bosses to pay better wages. But will it? Or, is it an excuse to scapegoat and play the nationalist card?

The August 11 Age reported that the Retail Supply Chain Alliance — the Australian Workers Union (AWU), the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU) want this visa abolished and the seasonal worker program, which brings temporary workers from the Pacific, to be expanded with “a pathway to citizenship” offered.

The unions have also called for labour-hire companies in the sector to be registered, and for union oversight of the firms.

“This is an industry that is essentially lawless, totally broken and run by industry cowboys,” AWU national secretary Daniel Walton said on August 11. “It needs an overhaul from top to bottom that looks at every policy parameter — visas, worker rights, labour hire, enforcement — the lot.

“For too long the horticultural industry has relied on exploited backpackers”, the unions said. “Underpayment of wages and horrible living conditions are becoming the standard business model for the industry, enabled by the working holiday visa scheme.”

The visa in question allows backpackers aged 18–30 (or up to 35 years old if they are from Ireland, France or Canada) who work for a total of 88 days in rural areas to be granted a second year on their visa.

The work includes fruit picking and farm animal work, as well as fishing and pearling; tree farming and felling; construction; mining and bushfire recovery.

Notably, this visa is only available to those from most parts of Europe, Britain, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. But those from the rest of Asia, Africa, the Pacific, Latin America and the Middle East are ineligible.

Seasonal workers

It is good the unions want a pathway to citizenship for those workers arriving via the seasonal workers’ program. This sort of reform would give migrant workers more rights.

But the push to scrap working holiday visas gives succour to the nationalist myth that foreigners are taking “our” jobs.

A glance at the social media discussion shows how the inference that backpackers have been somehow complicit in their own exploitation is playing out.

There are allegations that backpackers are “middle class” and “scabs”, when most are young working-class people who have saved a bit of money and want to travel. Being able to work is the difference between a decent holiday or a very short one.

It ignores the fact that backpackers have been a critical part of the tourism industry, which creates jobs in rural areas.

Rather than abolish the working holiday visa, unions should be pushing to make it easier for backpackers to get a second-year extension.

Unemployment

We should be a lot tougher on unscrupulous employers, but better regulations governing horticultural workers should not have to mean abandoning the working visa for young backpackers.

A substantial factor in driving down rural wages and creating the opening for illegal exploitative work arrangements is unemployment.

Workers who have been unemployed for any length of time will be scarred by the poverty and rigmarole of navigating the punitive Centrelink and Job Network bureaucracies. They will often accept low-paid work to escape this reality.

Rather than calling for an end to a particular visa, unions should be campaigning to permanently increase the JobSeeker rate to $1100 a fortnight, as well as scrapping mutual obligation and welfare quarantining.

This would mean unemployed and underemployed rural workers have a chance of being able to own and maintain a vehicle and drive hundreds of kilometres for fruit picking jobs. It would also mean they are not tied to pointless meetings with Job Network providers in the town they happen to live in.

Unions should be fighting to improve regional public transport networks and for regional rail lines to be reinstated so that unemployed and underemployed workers can more readily travel to neighbouring towns for work if they don’t own a vehicle.

Unions should also provide financial and logistical support to the Australian Unemployed Workers Union, so that it can more effectively advocate for unemployed workers.

Labour hire

Pushing for labour-hire companies involved in fruit picking to be registered and calling for union oversight is a start.

But unions need to go further and push to enshrine the right to strike so that when farm bosses are exploiting workers, workers can take action to win wage increases and have unfair piece rates converted into, or supplemented by, a minimum hourly casual wage (or better).

Unions could also push back against the large supermarket conglomerates that use their purchasing power and monopoly status to push down the prices farmers receive, while still charging top prices at the check-out.

If farmers pay decent wages, increasing the cost of picking the fruit and vegetables, the supermarkets have to be forced to absorb it: after all they are taking the biggest profit share from fruit and vegetable production, distribution and retail.

Unions should initiate a campaign to support backpackers, and other exploited foreign workers, in rural areas. They need to educate these workers about their rights, including the legal minimum casual wage. They could set up a “one-stop shop” so that backpackers and migrant workers can be connected with a relevant union or service, and ideally join that union.

Unions could also make a push for sustainable rural jobs by championing the construction of publicly-owned 100% renewable energy systems.

Unfortunately, AWU national secretary Dan Walton is one of the appointees to the National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board, which is pushing for a fossil gas-powered economic recovery.

The exploitation of marginalised workers is the direct result of declining union density and the rise in insecure, casual and contract jobs that pay low wages.

If unemployed workers, including backpackers and other migrant workers, had access to a guaranteed job that pays the minimum award wage, via a public jobs agency, this would force private companies to match these conditions.

It would also increase aggregate demand and have a stimulatory effect.

Winning such an approach would require an upsurge in union membership and a willingness to lead class struggle.

Agribusinesses must not be allowed to get away with exploiting migrant or local labour. The union movement needs to chart a big picture recovery program which avoids pitching to nationalism and scapegoating small groups of defenceless foreign workers.

[Zane Alcorn is a member of Socialist Alliance.]

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