Exploited Migrant Workers: Our “Fresh Food People”?

By Sayomi Ariyawansa

It’s a jarring thought – the shiny apple at the supermarket could be the product of exploitation in our own backyard. Yet, a recent Four Corners report, entitled “Slaving Away”, uncovered a hidden world of chronic underpayment, harassment and mistreatment of young workers who are nationals of other countries – some here legally, usually on a Working Holiday visa, others working and living in Australia illegally.

The Four Corners report challenged the assumptions we have about Australian produce. When we see the sign “Australian grown”, it’s comforting. We would not assume that vast majority of the produce available on the shelves is the result of organised and concerted exploitation of nationals from other countries. Surely, that is something that happens in other countries?

However, the Four Corners report outlined a series of disturbing facts about the supply chain. The report shed light on the following practices:

  • shifts of up to 18 hours per day;
  • workers being paid illegal rates, or sometimes not at all; and
  • inappropriate working conditions, including being subjected to bullying or harassment, and other breaches of occupational health and safety laws.

Who benefits?

The Four Corners report focused specifically on the practices of labour hire companies. Suppliers often do not directly employ their workers, but employ labour hire companies to obtain workers for them. Put simply, the supplier who provides fruit and vegetables does not hire the workers who pick, sort and inspect the produce. Rather, the supplier engages a labour hire company which employs the workers and which has all the obligations and responsibilities that come with being an employer.

Four Corners found that labour hire companies were systematically skimming off the payment owed to the workers, and often paying workers cash in hand. This included thieving statutory benefits such as superannuation, and forcing workers to work off the books and far from an auditor or regulator’s eyes.

The exploitation is deplorable. However, what is also extremely disturbing is the apparent wilful blindness of the suppliers who engage labour hire contractors with murky credentials. Apparently, even Australian authorities find it difficult to find the key figures involved in these labour hire companies. The opacity that shrouds the labour hire companies is deeply concerning given the serious obligations and responsibilities held by employers towards their employees.

Importantly, suppliers are not abrogated from certain responsibilities towards their workers, even if they do not themselves employ these workers. For example in Victoria, under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Vic) (the Act), suppliers must provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, so far as is “reasonably practicable”, or reasonable in the circumstances. Importantly, the operation of the Act means that the workers hired by labour hire contractors are covered as if the supplier were their employer.

Even if suppliers try to contract out of their responsibilities by specifying that the labour hire company is responsible for the workers, the supplier may still be liable under the Act with respect to the occupational health and safety of the workers.

In this context, it is puzzling that this issue appears to be dealt with as an illegal immigrant or illegal worker issue, rather than an occupational health and safety matter in the workplace.

One of the most galling aspects of these widespread practices is the hands-off approach of the major supermarkets and fast food chains at the end of the supply chain. Coles, for example, declined to be interviewed for the Four Corners report and instead issued a bland statement stating that Coles is, “committed to ethical sourcing”, “expect[s] all … suppliers to comply with Australian law”, and provides an “ethical sourcing policy” to all suppliers that specifies the laws and regulations that supplier must observe. This laissez-faire attitude is woefully inadequate – especially in the context of the disparate bargaining power between suppliers and these major companies.

Where to from here?

There is no doubt that major supermarket chains exert pressure on suppliers to extract the lowest possible price for consumers. Suppliers, in turn, are pressured to take steps to minimise and simplify their own businesses – enhancing the appeal of labour hire companies, who take on the administrative burdens and many other responsibilities required of employers.

There is room, therefore, for consumer advocacy on these issues. To this end, almost immediately after the Four Programs report aired on the ABC, people took to social media to demand action to stop the exploitation of migrant workers – and while these actions are often dismissed as mere “clickivism”, these issues have subsequently attracted strong media attention.

For, on the other hand, there has been a deception played on all of us. Major supermarkets like Woolworths and Coles routinely use advertising that plays on our emotions. “Helping Australia Grow” and the ubiquitous “Fresh Food People” commercials lead us to believe that the produce we buy from these supermarkets supports Australian industries and Australian workers. This is a far cry from the realities of exploitative labour practices.

The Federal Government has since confirmed that it would create a taskforce to investigate the exploitation of foreign workers and to target visa fraud. At the time of writing, further details about this taskforce are yet to be announced to the public. A spokesperson for the Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Senator the Hon Michaelia Cash, announced that the Immigration Department would work closely with the Fair Work Ombudsman with respect to visa fraud and allegations of the exploitation of migrant workers.

This is a step in the right direction as it hints at a multi-disciplinary approach to this issue. It contrasts with earlier attempts at curbing these practices, which seemed to focus on visa fraud and illegal workers themselves, rather than the labour hire companies, suppliers, and supermarkets across the supply chain.

The challenge now is for the momentum to continue, and for the impact of the Four Corners report to remain at the forefront of our minds as consumers. In one sense, this shouldn’t be too difficult – we consume the products of these exploitative practices every day.

Sayomi Ariyawansa is a Melbourne lawyer. She has volunteered with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, interned in the New York Office of Human Rights First and previously worked for the Victorian Department of Justice.

Feature image: Dean Hochman/Flickr