The northern Mallee region, dissected by the winding Murray River, is defined by its thriving horticulture industry. As the Member for Mallee, I’m filled with a sense of pride and purpose when I observe the sprawling rows of grapevines and fruit bearing trees that characterise the landscape.
However, I have a growing disquiet centred on those who remain unseen; the invisible population of undocumented workers who traverse horticultural fields across the country.
As a nation, we are proud to trade on our clean, green, ethical, and sustainable reputation. Whether at home or abroad, ‘Australian made’ is trusted and sought after. But this reputation is at risk, marred by a dark underbelly of undocumented workers in our agriculture industry.
It has been estimated that there are between 60,000 to 100,000 people working in Australia illegally. For a majority of these people, their only crime is overstaying their welcome on a student or working holiday maker visa. In many cases, they have become trapped in circumstances not of their own choosing.
These are people who work tirelessly to contribute to our nation’s economy and give back to their communities, but who largely live in the shadows. They have little to no access to healthcare and government services, and fear coming forward for support. And though they are encouraged, there are many who will not come forward for a COVID-19 vaccination.
There is a cancer of unscrupulous labour hire contractors who exploit these undocumented workers, while the vast majority of employers do the right thing and pay fair wages. This has led to a market imbalance that incentivises producers to break the law.
In a country where consumers increasingly demand that their produce is ethically and sustainably sourced, we can’t continue to allow this level of exploitation to exist in our supply chain. We must ensure trust in our industries is preserved.
An important step in stamping out this exploitation will be to reign in corrupt labour hire contractors who continue to dodge the patchwork of existing state regulations on labour hire licencing. We need effective labour hire licencing reforms at a national level to protect employees and reduce red tape for producers. To achieve these and other reforms, we need a holistic approach from all levels of Government, and all aspects of the supply chain.
But in order to fully stamp out the exploitation of undocumented workers in agriculture and urgently address the severe shortage of legal workers in the country, we must be more ambitious.
The National Agriculture Labour Advisory Committee has recently recommended to government that a one-off visa status resolution be provided to these undocumented workers in its landmark report, Learning to Excel.
Recommendation 25 calls for a status resolution for undocumented workers, and the pandemic provides a unique opportunity to do so. Although this debate is not new to the Chambers of Parliament, the idea has never received such broad-ranging support. At the 2021 National Party Federal Conference this month, my motion to design an appropriate status resolution measure was carried unopposed.
The key difference in the debate is context. With our borders shut tight, and international travel limited like never before, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided the motivation to resolve this issue once and for all.
The faucets through which our seasonal workforce has historically flowed have all but seized up since the onset of the pandemic, and the pool of available labour in Australia drained almost entirely, when temporary workers, students, and residents returned to their home countries.
This perfect storm has left growers and employers around the country desperate for labour. A recent study by consultancy firm EY, estimates the horticulture industry will experience a shortfall of up to 26,000 workers between June 2020 and December 2021.
In lieu of measures to increase the States’ quarantine capacity to welcome more international arrivals, the only remaining option to address this shortage is to provide a status resolution for undocumented workers in the agriculture industry. While this won’t increase the total pool of labour in the country, it will increase the availability and flexibility of legal workers in the country, and this is the key point.
Regularising the status of these workers will give them freedom to choose an employer that will treat them fairly, and lawless contractors will be forced to either pay fair wages or go out of business. It will give employers who do the right thing access to this massive pool of labour. In addition, traceability measures, such as QR code check-in systems or biometrics, must be considered to ensure that workers are meeting their commitments under the new measures.
A status resolution measure is essential not only for the health and wellbeing of this hidden population, but also for the reputation and sustainability of our agriculture industry. It’s in the best interest of our nation to stamp out the exploitation of undocumented workers, and the time is now.