A focus on labour and conditions, particularly poor pay for a day's work among agricultural workers on the Coffs Coast have sent ripples through industry at a time when the cost of a harvest to the farmer has never been so high.
With early summer Rabbit Eye variety berries coming off their bushes by the bucket-load, a pandemic-induced shortage of labour has meant hand pickers can expect $4 for every kilogram produced. One anonymous grower told The Land the best employee stashed away 13kg in one hour but left at the end of the day to make more money some where else.
While farmers strongly back the system of piece work as it results in fair pay for fair effort, the practice is coming under intense criticism and scrutiny.
On Friday the Labor thinktank McKell Institute released a daming report, titled Blue Harvest, which details poor practice on farms along the Coffs Coast.
A blueberry grower near Coffs Harbour has revealed his own information about the way foreign labour was compromised by up front payments, cash-back deals and the elusive promise of residency.
One scam involved legal wages delivered on paper to contractors before cash was returned in the hand. Workers typically got less after people in the supply chain took their cut.
"I think you'll find a lot of these stories will come out if there is an inquiry," said a source, noting the report has called for a Royal Commission into the exploitation and underpayment of migrant workers in Australia.
The report calls out the profiteering of compromised workers all along the supply chain, from contractors to landlords. It also highlighted the reality that when berries are easier to pick wages are lower than when berries are smaller and slower to fall into a bucket.
Workers completing their required 80 days in a regional area to gain further time on their visa were particularly at risk of being scammed. Ironically, growers say these workers tend to be the slowest and least interested in the job. That is one reason why they earn so little when paid by the piece.
One of the report's recommendations is to create a safety net for piece workers so none fall below the minimum wage. It is not clear who will pay for that net. Another recommendation calls for national licensing of labour hire contractors.
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