SA grower highlights problems with tax and employment systems for casual farm work

Tackling tough labour and visa issues in agriculture

Opinion
Gillian Fennell with her daughter Eleanor. Photo Credit: Avalind Photography.

Gillian Fennell with her daughter Eleanor. Photo Credit: Avalind Photography.

Aa

SA grower calls for tax and employment reform to address visa and labour issues.

Aa

Another week, another horror story from an attractive young girl about being harassed in the agricultural industry while trying to complete the 88 days required to get a visa extension.

It's not a new story and plenty of women in the agricultural industry can report similar - if not worse - harassment and exploitation at different times throughout their career.

What this recent story has highlighted, however, is that there are a lot of issues with the labour market in agriculture and especially in horticulture - where the seasonal, transient and short-lived nature of the work does not lend itself to a stable, professional workforce.

It seems to be an ideal fit for young, enthusiastic travelers who want to earn a few dollars and travel around the country.

They enjoy the company of other young people and are fit enough to carry out the physically demanding tasks of fruit picking and vegetable harvesting.

So, what went wrong?

Lots of things, obviously.

Over the years, farms have got bigger, more staff are needed and - with the constant increases in input prices, prolonged droughts and falling profits - margins are being squeezed.

This leads to desperate measures being implemented in a bid to reduce costs.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to under-pay staff.

Just ask some of the biggest businesses in Australia, such as Woolworths, Commonwealth Bank, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Qantas and Bunnings that 'confessed' to under-paying their staff in 2019 - some over a period of many years.

Let's also consider that if companies like those can get it so terribly wrong and make millions of dollars' worth of 'errors' when they have many experts helping them, what chance does a farmer 'from the back of beyond' have?

Our award, payment and taxation systems are overly-complicated and seem to favour those with the means to employ others to fight their battles for them.

Both employers and employees can be left confused and out-of-pocket when they try to negotiate the nightmare that is our employment system.

Which brings me to the labour hire/accommodation 'companies' that take advantage of workers.

These present an attractive solution to farmers - an offer to supply a ready workforce for a flat daily rate, which removes a headache that most small businesses don't have the capacity to deal with.

And, yes, farmers that turn a blind eye to - or wilfully participate in - the degradation of their workers are just as bad as the dodgy hostel operators.

But it is all too easy for these predators to take advantage of the desperate need of both farmers and backpackers to find solutions to their mutual problems.

It's obvious that if Australia is going to continue to produce top quality, fresh produce, major policy change needs to happen - not to mention reform of our employment and taxation systems.

Simplifying these two things alone will generate most of the much-needed change in the agricultural industry.

Government needs to listen to the needs of those who have 'skin in the game' - the farming families and the travelling workers - and leave those who don't have our best interests at heart out of the discussion. Common ground can be found.

- Gillian Fennell lives with her family on a remote beef property in outback South Australia and is a board member of the Cattle Council of Australia. You can follow Gillian on Twitter @stationmum101

The story SA grower highlights problems with tax and employment systems for casual farm work first appeared on Stock & Land.

Aa

Comments

From the front page

Sponsored by