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Issue #1936      12th October, 2020

“Hyper exploitation”

in our agricultural sector

The Australian Workers’ Union released a statement 30th September titled “Young Australians being conscripted into modern-day slavery.”

The statement begins: “The Australian Workers’ Union says the federal government’s proposal to incentivise unemployed young Australians to work on farms is nothing short of modern day slavery and will do nothing to stop rampant worker exploitation.

“Agriculture Minister David Littleproud is expected to announce plans that will allow those on JobSeeker to earn an extra $300 without losing any of their fortnightly allowance of $815.70”

In effect, this means that unemployed workers conscripted to this labour would receive around $560 a week, significantly below the minimum wage of $753.80, despite most of the wage being subsidised by the state.

Not only are businesses across the economy taking advantage of the unemployment crisis to carry out a campaign of destruction of workers’ rights, conditions and wage levels with government backing, but so too is the government taking part in this campaign directly. All the while, workers are encouraged to believe that they should be grateful that things are not yet even worse for them! Unless we fight back against this tide, they surely will be even worse, very soon.

This plan to send the unemployed and/or youth down to the countryside for the benefit of private farmers and farming corporations took shape in the recommendations of a bipartisan parliamentary inquiry earlier in September, also spruiked by Littleproud.

The recommendations included encouraging school leavers to spend a gap year “at home” picking fruit instead of travelling or coercing some JobSeeker recipients to do the same rather than lose their payment.

It is unclear at this stage what policies will actually be put into action, but these proposals and the fact that they were endorsed by both the major parties is seriously concerning.

The agriculture sector is suffering from the absence, due to pandemic travel restrictions, of the mainstays of agricultural labour in this country: working backpackers and impoverished temporary migrants. The media coverage of this issue has mostly focussed on the former. While indeed they have comprised a somewhat larger proportion in recent times, there is also the fact that they tend to come from more fortunate economic circumstances relative to the latter, and so the bourgeois media treats them as relatively more human and worthy of attention.

Regardless of these considerations, this sector of employment is notorious for widespread criminally low wages and wage theft, whoever the workers may be. The reliance on foreign labour stems from the reality that foreigners are more vulnerable to these criminal, hyper exploitative practices than are citizens. But the government’s approach to solving the crisis in agriculture seems to be an attempt to lower Australian citizens’ standing to the same position, and formalise these illegal practices in law.

The government is utterly unable to conceive of a situation where this hyper exploitation is absent.

Although much reporting on agricultural issues is centred around small farmers, appealing to a romantic nationalistic image of Australia, the reality is that the agricultural sector is dominated by huge monopolistic corporations, and small farmers are often forced into the position of carrying out the worst sorts of exploitation in order to compete against the monopolies. This is not a simple moral question, but a question of material relations of production in Australia. The government and state play a key role in establishing and preserving these relations, and here we see them in their full reactionary, anti-worker glory.

Next article – Red Women: Beryl Miller

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