WORKER welfare is increasingly gaining focus among major horticulture growers in the hopes of shaking off an image of exploitative employment.
The past year has seen several moves within the horticulture sector aimed at improving its treatment of seasonal workers.
But a union body is keeping a close eye on anecdotal reports of abuse as it ramps up its push for better conditions.
Earlier this month, the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance committed to working with retailers, suppliers, government and their grower networks to ensure industry complies with relevant laws and standards of sustainable and ethical employment.
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AFPA members employ more than 22,000 people across 100 different production locations. It also has a significant grower supplier network responsible for the employment of more than 25,000 additional people.
AFPA chief executive officer, Michael Rogers, said it was vitally important the organisation's members created a culture of active management by improving the sector's employment practices and reputation.
He said this included proactively meeting all employment and duty of care obligations.
"Due to the time sensitive and seasonal nature of harvesting fresh produce, it is vitally important that growers have access to a workforce that is mobile and readily available to harvest crops to optimise returns based on the seasonal nature of fresh produce production," Mr Rogers said.
According to ABS data, Australian horticulture employs 72,800 people across 11,490 businesses.
Union Releases Report
THE Farm Workers Speak Out report from the National Union of Workers (NUW) released in July compiled the accounts of more than 650 farm workers who spoke out and participated in a worker to worker survey between April 1 and May 31 this year, encompassing migrant workers who live and work in Australia and also temporary visa workers from South East Asia and across to the Pacific.
It also reportedly expresses views from undocumented workers.
Report participants were mainly from the Sunraysia and Goulburn Valley as these regions were in high season.
Many of the workers who participated in the survey were members of the NUW.
The report found farm workers earn on average $14.80 per hour (before tax) and two thirds of farm workers earn below the minimum wage, with the lowest wage being reported being $4.60 per hour.
The report also finds that 68 per cent of farm workers are employed through a cash contractor or subcontractor and very few get payslips, PAYG tax or superannuation.
"Only one third of workers who participated in this survey held a valid visa," the report said.
"All workers who participated faced direct racism, violence and disrepect at work."
The report pointed a finger at major supermarket chains, Woolworthis and Coles as having the power to fix worker exploitation, more than any other industry player.
"The big supermarkets have ethical supply codes and a system of self regulation and audits, all which claim to support workers rights," the report said.
"However the Farm Workers Speak Out report clearly demonstrates that the supermarkets' codes and 'honour system' of self-regulation, are clearly failing to end systematic and widespread exploitation."
QLD grower representative group, Growcom, responded to the NUW report saying its organisation had long held a zero tolerance stance on worker exploitation and unethical business practices.
"Through the Fair Work Ombudsman's Harvest Trail Inquiry and other recent workforce surveys, we're aware that there is a problem with labour compliance in our industry," Growcom CEO, David Thomson said.
"We've developed Fair Farms on behalf of industry to address this issue with real impact."
Fair Farms was officially launched at Hort Connections 2019 in Melbourne in June but was developed over the past 18 months in close consultation with growers, other supply chain members and the major Australian retailers including Woolworths, Aldi and Coles.
To date, supermarket chains Aldi and Woolworths have accepted the Fair Farms program as a means for their suppliers to demonstrate compliance with the retailers' ethical sourcing requirements.
Fair Farms program manager, Thomas Hertel, said the program was an industry-led third-party certification program for ethical employment practices.
"The program not only provides certification of compliance, but also supports participants with tools, information and training relevant to Australian's labour laws in the context of horticulture," he said.
"The Fair Farms Standard requires that employers educate their workers about workers' rights including available grievance processes and access to representation.
"We began with the national roll-out of Fair Farms in June and expect that a significant proportion of Australian horticulture businesses will join over the next 12 months," Mr Hertel said.
"Growers have been calling for this certification for some time, because they're sick of being lumped in with the unscrupulous operators that do exist in our industry."
Call for Change Heard
THE NUW report delivers some first hand accounts from horticulture workers who detail their treatment and conditions while working on farm.
The report goes on to make four demands:
- Fair Wages: "Every farm worker needs at least $24.36 per hour. No more piece rates."
- Visa Justice: "We need a fair visa system that gives migrant farm workers security."
- Secure Jobs: "No more cash contracting. We want direct, reliable, on-the-books jobs.
- Freedom of Association: "Migrant workers need union rights like any other worker."
The need for improved ethical worker standards emerged at the Protected Cropping Australia Conference on the Gold Coast in July during a panel session with both retail and grower representatives.
While growers declaring their fresh produce is grown by ethical means may seem like an added marketing point, it may not necessarily translate into boosted sales from the reality of the standard shopper
Costa's Michael Engerman, said the number of people who were seeking out produce by their source and the ethics behind them, was minimal.
"That still makes up a very small percentage of people who actually want to know. Most are on autopilot. They know what they want, they pick it up and go," he said.
Mr Engerman said it was about understanding the consumer.
"Future work and work now is being done around trying to understand what the consumer wants and when do they want them," he said.
BerryWorld Australia's Lee Peterson said working with growers to ensure all standards were met with both produce quality and employment practices was important.
He said ensuring proper worker practices were in place was paramount for a brand, particularly in an industry where mistreatment was rife.
Joseph Cartisano of Perfection Fresh agreed.
"You can't benchmark against what others get away with it," he said.
Mr Engerman said there was change already happening in this area with some major chains promising to only source from ethical operators.
Investors too were aware of such possible black spots in the industry.
"It's absolutely critical," said investment firm, Roc Partners' Frank Barillo.
"We'll see a really great investment but if it doesn't tick that box, then do we want to be part of that?" he said.
"If we can't get comfortable with the investment, we'll just knock it on the head."
AFPA's Michael Rogers said the group was focused on improving the sector's employment practices and reputation.
"This is particularly important under the new Modern Slavery Act 2018, which addresses responsibility throughout the supply chain," Mr Rogers said.
The AFPA is also seeking greater integration between ethical auditing programs to reduce duplication and cost associated with multiple audits, record keeping requirements and compliance criteria.