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Low hanging fruit

By John Haly

Disparaging the unemployed youth as lazy, pampered and opposed to hard work is a conservative mantra. Conscripting youth into the army (as Jacqui Lambie would have it) or off to rural farms to do hard graft, has been a talking point for years amongst conservatives.

This opinion has been prevalent during the pandemic associated with mass disappearance of jobs. Senator Gerard Rennick and Colin Boyce MP have respectively expressed these views, in Facebook posts from 16th Aug and 6th Sept 2020.

Similar views are echoed in the Courier Mail articles they posted. “Unemployed youth should be conscripted” by Peter Gleeson and “Crops rot as lazy young Aussies snub lucrative hard work” by Michael Madigan. The first article discussed claims Unions are calling for an end to the working holiday Visa because of exploitation of backpackers on Farms.

Despite the hyperbole, unions were asking for a reformed Visa system, rather than terminating the Visa. This distinction was missed by Peter Gleeson who dismissed union concerns about exploitation with the phrase, “What bulldust“. However, other Murdoch news sources have acknowledged systemic abuse problems when promoting a documentary about Backpacker abuse. Sydney Criminal Lawyers have also documented visa abuse by farmers as has the ABC and business-oriented websites. So, sorry, Peter, these union claims are not “bulldust“. The federal ministers supporting these stories should know that because of their Federal paper on the subject “Labour exploitation and Australia’s visa framework“.

The second story by Michael Madigan implies typically extravagant wages of $3800 are being offered by farmers desperate to find workers. Both articles have exaggerated the earning capacity of a good fruit picker (although Peter’s article “modestly” claims that farmworkers can earn up to $1500 a week). According to Madigan’s article, Gavin Scurr managing director of Piñata Farms (a multi-million dollar business) said, “We recently paid a worker $3800 for a weeks work recently, and that is a top pick up working six days a week, probably around 10 hours a day,…”. Now on that basis, one might be forgiven for presuming that you can earn $63 an hour for picking strawberries. This assumption would reflect a misunderstanding of how much growers pay their workers. Despite both Michael and Peter’s claim that farmworkers can earn extravagant amounts of money, it is somewhat contrary to the Horticulture Industry Award of $19.49 for full-time or $24.36 an hour for casuals.

None of these articles mentions the practice of bonus payments paid on top, of a meagre base pay rate. Performance bonuses are only given to their top picker to encourage competition amongst the workers. Neither do these articles mention the standard rate paid, to everyone else who picks fruit. It is only about the total paid to a single worker who had – in the case of Piñata Farms – worked a sixty-hour week for a farmer who “turns over more than $50 million a year and employs 70 full-time staff and 300 seasonal workers.” Contrast this with the projected cash income for Australian farms of an “average $216,000 per farm in 2016–17, the highest recorded in the past 20 years,” cited by the Department of Agriculture.

At least Peter’s claim of $1500 a week is possible if – at $25/hr – the casual worker picks for 60 hours a week. However, maintaining that level of manual labour on a farm would be unsustainable. Which is presumably why Piñata Farms paid one of their workers who did precisely that, a huge bonus, as per Madigan’s article.

Is the picture of the real potential earning for casual farm worker, gaining any more clarity now?

 

Senator Rennick’s FB protest disparaging Australian Youth

Colin Boyce’s FB protest disparaging Australian Youth

Why is it a backpacker industry?

Lower rates of pay than are legislated, are typical as many citizen’s confirmed on Colin Boyce MP’s Facebook feed. So why do backpackers take on this work? To qualify for the second Working Holiday Visa (subclass 417) applicants have to finish three months (or 88 days to be exact) of regional farm work in the country. The Visa promotes specific jobs such as fruit picking and packing, trimming vines, fishing, working in tree farming, or working in mining. Backpackers put up with being paid under the award and overcharged for food and accommodation and even sexually exploited. With backpackers in short supply, our politicians are suggesting the use of the “many young, pampered Australians [who] have an aversion to hard work.

 

Selected social media comments on Colin Boyce’s FB page

 

Australian youth who are not seasoned backpackers, face relocation issues, such as the costs associated with travel, accommodation and feeding themselves while on a farm, which would diminish their earnings considerably. Although being accustomed to the poverty level of dole payments have presumably inured them to scrape by on very little. Current travel restrictions prevalent under pandemic conditions would limit Australian youth to work on farms only in their State. Is seeking minimum wages in an industry well known for underpayment, exploitation and poor working conditions the best we can do for our young Australians?

Senator Gerard Rennick echoing these sentiments elicited reaction to his post varying from gratuitous approval like, “Totally agree with this…” to criticism noting why relocation and picking work was fraught with problematic issues. These included the propensity for exploitation and anecdotal stories of the poor working conditions on farms.

Dubious claims that CQ with 4.4% of State pop’ is a booming jobs zone

Logistic Viability

Is farm work a viable option to occupy our “indolent” and unemployed youth, irrespective of possible low pay rates?

Total unemployment is massive under the pandemic. Historically, it has not dipped under a million workers since May 2012, and it did so, only for that month, according to Roy Morgan. For regular numbers below one million you have has to look back before September 2011. ABS only reports half the numbers of domestic unemployment because of their international methodology, which I have explained previously.

 

Under/Unemployment and Job Vacancies under the coalition

 

Youth unemployment (15-24 yrs) has had a long history of being more than twice as high percentage-wise as the national average, even by ABS’s low standards. Which in July 2020 measured 16.3% of the youth labour market (Table 13) or 345,900 people.

 

ABS Youth Unemployment compared to all

Youth Unemployment

So what are the job prospects for this mostly unskilled market of unemployed youth? Are there plenty of jobs in the market?

The Government publishes such data every month in the IVI job vacancy statistics. Under the classification of Labourers, there is a sub-classification for “Farm, Forestry and Garden” Workers. Early September’s seasonally adjusted figures show that in July of 2020 there were 750 such jobs advertised in a class of general unskilled labourers of 10261 vacancies, that were a subset of total job vacancies advertised in Australia of 131072. Unemployment figures, according to Roy Morgan in July were 1,786,000 although the August figures (at the time of writing) were released showing a rise to 1,980,000 people. So from July’s perspective, we can note that farm labour vacancies represent 7.3% of general unskilled labour and 0.57% of all job vacancies advertised.

ABS Youth Employment/Unemployment and unskilled Labour jobs

 

Keep in mind that the IVI job statistics only drill down to the level of “Farm, Forestry and Garden” Workers which means that Farmworkers specifically are a subset of that 0.57% of Australia wide job vacancies. Given that the Courier Mail stories are spruiking the idea that Australians should be taking up these jobs, I think it is also safe to suggest farmers have been increasing their advertising for workers.

No matter how you cut the numbers and consider all the variables of remote location, physical suitability, skill limits, accessibility limitations, competition, financial limits, of young people; coupled with accounts of employer discrimination, exploitation, feeble pay and working conditions; one has to ask this question. Is the conscription of young people or shaming them into compliance, the best possible recourse of action, for which our political senators and ministers should be lobbying?

There are far greater vacancies in other industries. Should not these parliamentarians not be focusing on where the greatest needs are? Not that farmer’s needs are illegitimate because they are not. These crops do need to be harvested. But professional job roles like engineers, scientists, Health (particularly now), ICT, Lawyers and the like for which there are at least 39580 jobs advertised or 30% of the job market. Managerial roles have 13800 job vacancies (10.5%); Technical and trade workers have 18194 job vacancies (13.8%); Community and personal services workers have 12821 job vacancies (9.8%); Clerical and Administrative workers have 18655 job vacancies (14.2%). These jobs need an educated population to fill them so a better focus for young people would be – one might presume – to promote policies to make education more universally available to young Australians.

Instead, our political conservatives and Murdoch media are focused on the largest unemployed group in Australia to fill jobs in one of the smallest markets for jobs in the country. Dare I make the pun, that there will be no bonuses for your work ethics as you’re all targeting, the easy pickings of the lowest hanging fruit!

This article was originally publish on Australia Awaken – Ignite your Torches.

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8 comments

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  1. DrakeN

    Goodness!
    What’s all this “leftie” obsession with facts.
    You can’t run a successful rort government on facts.
    People will never believe you.

  2. Uta Hannemann

    Certain ‘fair’ conditions should be regulated by the government.

  3. TuffGuy

    This government want unemployed people out there picking crops because it improves their statistics. They don’t give two shits whether those people are abused, underpaid, overworked or whatever since wage stagnation is their primary strategy. I am sure they are only too aware of what goes on in the crop picking industry and actively choose to do nothing, just like with everything else.

  4. wam

    It has been 60 years since I camped in Renmark and picked cots in cooltong we were paid by the hour and only one was over 21. He got considerably more that the rest of us whether he worked softer or not.. But the work was not easy and we earned every penny.
    Today, up north and on the river, the pickers were not Australian citizens. There are 160 pickers from vanuatu in quarantine costing the industry a whopping $500k
    The reverse is found in conservative circles.
    The pollies give the smallest number but the real number comes from them getting paid for any task they do plus reimbursement of anything they spend and can, no matter how obscurely, claim back from the trough.
    The police have changed from a union to an association and they still get shift allowances overtime and penalty rates. Apart from the school based constable who gets a 5 day 8am-3 pm (although they may get access to overtime etc on weekends and school holidays???) Their take home is 10s of thousands higher than base salary
    The biggest laugh is from the ex-army boomers and their bring back ‘conscription’.
    The army neither guards nor feeds itself these days. There are no barracks and everything is outsourced.
    ps
    the punishment that trying to get back on the dole after earning without accounting for the costs of earning make the exercise of picking punitive.

  5. Michael Taylor

    I went and ‘knocked’ almonds down near McLaren Vale for two weeks way back in 1979, plus a week at Lindsay Point (past Renmark) for a further week where the farmer also had a crop. The pay sounded good. Then the bloke subtracted our meals – morning smoko and lunch – that his wife made, and it was a hefty subtraction I might add, plus I had to stay in the McLaren Vale pub so I ended up with next to nothing.

    When we went to Lindsay Point we slept on the floor in his shed. And the bastard charged us rent.

    I worked my guts out for three weeks for zilch.

  6. Andrew Smith

    A related issue has been ‘population growth’ i.e. decline in regions due to smaller farming families and ageing populations leaving labour short falls.

    It is unrealistic to expect unemployed etc. to up end family and/or community roots by leaving their urban or other regional lives behind for uncertain seasonal employment and future.

    Maybe media could ask MPs and others suggesting enforced moves, seasonal and hard manual employment to do so themselves?

  7. leefe

    How many of those carrying on about “soft” and “lazy” Aussies have ever done the work they are promoting? Maybe they should try it and report back.

    It was a different game back in the 80s when I did several seasons of fruit-picking (mainly tomatoes) up in FNQ.
    We were paid piece rates, which varied from farm to farm. Shed work (sorting, grading, packing) was hourly rates and you were generally treated like shit. Picking is physically incredibly demanding but if you can cope with it (most people can’t for a full season) it used to be possible to make good money. I could make enough in three or four months, eight hours a day, six days a week, to spend the rest of the year travelling around Australia.
    But at hourly rates and with the increased profiteering by growers and the exploitation of workers, these days it”s a mug’s game. You’re charged for accommodation even if it’s just a patch of ground to pitch a tent. You’re lucky if there’s a hot shower at the end of the day. The growers prefer visitors because they’re easier to rip off.

  8. John Haly

    Well, I can see that much anecdotal evidence supports my statistical analysis in the comments herein.

    DrakeN, I love your sarcastic reference, and I will try to continue to bring you the facts when I write here.

    Uta Hannemann, they are regulated by Fair Trading, but these wages are not enforced. You will find a link in my article above to the Fair Trading site.

    Tuffguy, that is pretty much the status quo.

    Wam, That last comment is not something I had given due thought to, but you are on the money. You are not treated as a business when you freelance yourself out to farms, and the “Dole merchants”/private job search agencies look at earning without accounting for the expenses inherent in doing the job. That is very un-capitalist of them not to recognise profit as the factor by which one evaluates earning.

    Michael, pretty much what I said to Tuffguy as your experience was how to earn squat after weeks of work. Thanks for publishing this, by the way, as social media is – from my perspective – reading this avidly.

    Andrew, The Canberra bubble is quite amazingly self-delusional when it comes to unemployment. These politicians are about exploiting a “compulsion” narrative to appeal to a base for which they convince to elect them and earn not just a vast salary but often millions in “donations and perks”. They will never work on a farm.

    Leefe, the descriptions are a false narrative. Politicians have adopted a systemic and deliberate strategy of disparaging the unemployed with classifications of “lazy” and “unmotivated” for political advantage and social division. All the while pouring money into the hands of mates in private job search agencies whose job is to keep people busy and in stasis while pretending to search for jobs, they all know, do not exist. These descriptions are supported by the much sought after media story of singular examples of individuals – that might match that description – who usually have been unemployed for so long that they have given up. In that state, they express opinions reflective of their surrender to a failed system and ask why they should even try to find work. This perspective maintains a culturally conservative belief based on opinion and anecdotal stories dug up by the Murdoch press that is given identical or greater weight than fact-checking and well developed & robust methods of statistical analysis. Such is the fluidity of truth in modern post-fact based thinking expressed by those partaking in the contemporary dumbing down of the illiterate Australian population. Thankfully, none of you, are in that subset of the Australian population.

    Thank you all for taking the time to read, think and comment.

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