Backpackers fear a rise in exploitation after government axes 26-year-old jobs program

Backpackers fear a rise in exploitation after government axes 26-year-old jobs program

Backpackers fear there will be a rise in exploitation on Australian farms after the federal government axed a 26-year-old jobs program with little warning.

In its budget last month, the government announced the end of the Harvest Trail Services (HTS) and Harvest Trail Information Service (HTIS) on June 30, saving $47.3 million over the next five years.

The free services connected farmers with temporary working visa holders (backpackers) and Australian jobseekers during busy harvest periods on the “harvest trail”, which comprises thousands of fruit, vegetable, grain and wine grape farms throughout every state and territory.

As part of the services, contractors conducted background checks on both parties.

Spanish backpacking couple David Garrote and Melanie Aragon, who have been working on a Queensland fruit farm, said losing the services would push working holiday makers towards less regulated methods like general job websites or social media.

“Backpackers will be more desperate because it’s going to be much harder for them to find a job, so they will be put at risk of being caught in a scam or who knows — something worse,” Mr Garrote said.

“You might just contact any farmer, and maybe they are not following the regulations. Maybe they could be abusive in that sense,” Mr Garrote said.

“Maybe they don’t adhere to the regulations, they might not pay you exactly what’s right, they might not pay you the superannuation.

“If the farmer was found [via HTS], all these things would be done right.”

On-farm exploitation has been a major concern for workers, government, the public and many farmers, with a Fair Work harvest trail inquiry recovering more than $1 million in wages for 2,500 workers in 2018.

Farmers face spending more time, money on recruitment

The Spaniards have been picking apples, pears and berries at the McMahon family’s farm in Stanthorpe.

David McMahon said they had used Harvest Trail Services since its inception in 1998, and the cuts would impact workers and farmers.

Stanthorpe fruit grower David McMahon says the closure of the harvest trail services is a big loss.(ABC Rural: Brandon Long)

“These labour providers essentially give a background on both the employees coming in and they can give the employee some confidence in the employer they’re going to,” David McMahon said.

“To wipe this altogether is a big loss for us, and I’m sure many other people in the industry.”

The McMahons’ workforce during the peak season from December to May comprises four family members, a permanent Australian worker, and about 22 backpackers.

For them, the change means a whole new set of challenges for next season.

“We’re at a very fine line on price point for our production,” Mr McMahon said.

“There is a real cost in having to spend time and money interviewing and onboarding — it could be in the scale of putting on an HR department.”

Contractors blindsided by cuts

The cuts caught the service providers by surprise, with all four confirming there was no consultation.

MADEC, which was the sole HTIS contractor, and found 5,000 people work on the harvest trail this financial year, will make 40 staff redundant and close six offices in Renmark, Shepparton, Coffs Harbour, Sale, Griffith and Caboolture.

Best Employment will cut four staff and close its Stanthorpe and Gatton offices, while Rural Enterprises Australia — the sole provider in WA — will cut one job and one office at Vasse.

QITE will cut at least one worker and is closing its Innisfail office. General manager Jillian Trout said the business found out about the program’s future via an email about 10 days before the budget announcements.

Services introduced to fix labour issues

Labour is a major issue for the horticulture sector in particular, which often struggles to find workers during key harvest months to prevent food spoilage, but cannot guarantee work year-round.

Harvest Trail Services was introduced by the Howard government in 1998 to address this.

Despite the government referring to the HTS website as “the best place to find harvest jobs in Australia”, the budget stated the cuts were about “redirecting spending to higher-quality areas”.

In a statement, a Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR) spokesperson said there had been a “sustained and significant” decline in the use of the Harvest Trail Services by both employers and people looking for work.

The ABC understands this could be attributed to an increase in the number of employers accessing the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme, with employers preferring “return workers”, and adoption of new technology.

Peak body ‘very disappointed’

National Farmers’ Federation horticulture council chair Jolyon Burnett said this was just one more resource being stripped from rural communities over recent times.

“It’s this death by a thousand cuts,” Mr Burnett said.

“It certainly has been, for many, many years, the go-to service to connect itinerant workers, seasonal workers and horticultural labour requirement. There is nothing like it.

“When a government can find money to fund a rugby league competition in Papua New Guinea, but they can’t fund a service that has shown itself to add value to rural communities, it’s very frustrating.”

National Farmers’ Federation horticulture council chair Jolyon Burnett says the service cuts could have flow-on effects for the economy.(Supplied: Australian Macadamias)

Mr Burnett said a lack of workers could mean fruit and vegetables remained unpicked, unpacked and subsequently spoiled, which had flow-on effects for the economy.

He said while the PALM scheme had its place, it was often too complex and costly for small and medium sized horticultural businesses.

Future concerns

Mr McMahon agreed that PALM was suitable for some businesses, but because continual work wasn’t always available at their operation, backpackers were their best option.

“The concerning thing for us is, when we see less energy put into these schemes and more energy put into a scheme that doesn’t necessarily fit our business model, you get a sense that the government’s turning away from a system that’s been very successful for the last 30 years.”

When David Garrote and Melanie Aragon are ready to move on, it’ll be back to the old approach for them.

“Apart from talking to David [McMahon] and maybe trying to find some friends in common, we would go back to research online that we know is not very successful and knocking on doors. What option do we have?” Mr Garrote said.

Stories from farms and country towns across Australia, delivered each Friday.

Posted , updated 

Read More

Zaļā Josta - Reklāma