Sex abuse, stolen wages and ‘slave-like conditions’: What young migrants are forced to endure as they pick YOUR fruit and vegetables on Australian farms

Investigation will expose the dark side of the local food industry

Thousands of young migrant workers are kept in ‘slave-like conditions’, are grossly underpaid and are even subjected to verbal and sexual abuse

‘Slaving Away’ airs 8.30pm Monday on Four Corners on ABC1

Coles, Woolworths, Aldi, IGA and Costco have been identified by the program as selling food that is picked and packed by exploited workers

Many Australian shoppers try to support local farmers by buying Australian-grown fruit, vegetables and poultry at the supermarket.

But an ABC Four Corners investigation, set to air Monday night, will expose the dark side of the local food industry in which thousands of young workers are kept in ‘slave-like conditions’, are grossly underpaid and are even subjected to verbal and sexual abuse.

Major supermarkets including Coles, Woolworths, Aldi, IGA and Costco and fast food outlets KFC and Red Rooster have been identified by the program as selling food that is picked and packed by exploited workers.

‘These workers are the backbone of our food industry, and we don’t know it’s happening, Australians are generally blissfully unaware of this,’ said Walkley Award-winning ABC journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna.

‘We care where food comes from, if it’s fresh and hygienic, but we need to care about this too.

‘This food is on our shelves and it’s being picked and packed for us by grossly exploited labour.’

Ms Meldrum-Hanna hopes the program will force Australians to question where their food comes from more carefully.

She said the industry’s young workers – predominantly Asian and European backpackers – come to Australia for a working holiday, and are signed up for work through travel agents in their home country or by responding to online ads once they’ve arrived in Australia.

About 150,000 workers a year come to Australia on the 417 working holiday visa which allows people aged 18-31 to work for an employer for up to six months.

‘The visa is for low skill work – such as fruit picking or working in abattoirs – but with the 417 visa program authorities don’t track where they go or who they work for,’ Ms Meldrum-Hanna said.

‘They fly completely under the radar and are very vulnerable.

‘Many have little English and are being preyed upon by labour hire programs, picked up and put in working gangs and grossly ripped off and exploited.’

She said the problem centres around a number of labour hire contractors, who will be named in the program on Monday night and who act as ‘middlemen’ between farmers and workers but in some cases take advantage of the workers.

‘Farmers and growers pay the award wage to the labour hire contractors, then the labour hire contractors are skimming off the top,’ Ms Meldrum-Hanna said.

‘Some farmers and growers don’t know that’s going on.

‘Supermarkets place enormous downward pressure to drive food down in price, and farmers are up against the wall. The only wriggle room they have is in labour costs.’

The labour hire contractors travel around the country promoting their services, promising to cut farmers and factory owners’ labour costs by 30 to 40 per cent.

‘If [farmers]can outsource their labour workforce so they don’t have responsibility for hiring, firing, tax, super and sick pay – they can just away with that admin and headache – then they will.

‘Farmers books look right, because they show they’re paying the right amount of money to contractors,’ she said.

‘But the vortex of the problem is that it’s completely unregulated, no one is inspecting [labour hire contractors’]books.

‘Farmers and growers pay the award wage to the labour hire contractors, then the labour hire contractors are skimming off the top,’ Ms Meldrum-Hanna said.

‘Some farmers and growers don’t know that’s going on.

‘Supermarkets place enormous downward pressure to drive food down in price, and farmers are up against the wall. The only wriggle room they have is in labour costs.’

The labour hire contractors travel around the country promoting their services, promising to cut farmers and factory owners’ labour costs by 30 to 40 per cent.

‘If [farmers]can outsource their labour workforce so they don’t have responsibility for hiring, firing, tax, super and sick pay – they can just away with that admin and headache – then they will.

‘Farmers books look right, because they show they’re paying the right amount of money to contractors,’ she said.

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