A blueberry picker at work.
A blueberry picker at work.

REVEALED: Coffs investigation shows exploitation 'rife'

A report on Coffs Harbour's blueberry industry has outlined widespread underpayment and labour exploitation.

It has also shown landlords are profiting from the exploitation.

Researchers spent 12 weeks in the region, gathering data and stories from blueberry workers employed during the 2020 picking season. They found that some were paid as little as $7 a bucket to pick low-quality fruit - the equivalent of $3 an hour.

The report, released today (December 4), has prompted unions to call for a Royal Commission into the exploitation, wage theft, and abuse they say is rife in the industry.

Rapid growth in recent years

THE blueberry industry in Coffs Harbour has experienced rapid growth in recent years and is home to more than 65 per cent of Australia's blueberry crop but, as the report outlines, has also seen the area emerge as: 'an attractive market for nefarious labour hirers'.

Sections of the community have become increasingly alarmed about the rapid acceleration of the industry, with concerns including: health impacts of spray drift; the impacts on waterways; visual impacts from netting; and water theft.

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Alarming results prompt calls to reform blueberry industry

Now a report has highlighted the widespread underpayment and labour exploitation in the industry in Coffs Harbour.

Titled Blue Harvest it was conducted by the The McKell Institute and sponsored by The Retail Supply Chain Alliance unions (WU, TWU and SDA)

Blueberry picking underway.
Blueberry picking underway.

The Working Holiday Maker visa

The Working Holiday Maker (WHM) visa program was designed to act like a cultural exchange - highlighting what Australia has to offer - but, as the report points out, it's led to many experiencing the worst of Australia.

"Often spending months under the employ of exploitative actors who are willing to sacrifice the wellbeing of their staff and the reputation of Australia - for their own personal profit," lead authors outline in the report (see full link at bottom of the story)

Blue Harvest found that many of the labour hirers are likely operating without an ABN, are alleged (and in some cases, proven) to be severely and intentionally underpaying their workers, are occasionally disappearing without a trace, have been documented abusing employees, and are alleged to be coercing some into unpaid administrative work.

The report says much of the exploitation that is occurring remains hidden, and unaddressed by authorities.

The Alliance believes the issues uncovered in Coffs Harbour are a mere microcosm of the industry where everyday workers harvesting grapes, berries, flowers, vegetables and fruits are systemically underpaid.

Landlords profiting

The report also uncovered exploitation by landlords with nine to 12 people sharing houses rented out at between $125 to $150 per person, netting the landlords approximately three times the median rent of certain suburban areas in the Coffs Coast region. 

The report claims to have uncovered one share house cluster of four neighbouring properties in Mullaway with 45 occupants was found to be charging approximately $1500 per week in rent for each property.  

The lead author also observed a cluster of shipping containers which had been turned into 4-bed dorms catering for Pacific Island workers, and rented at similar prices to three and four bedroom houses in the same suburb.

Time to act on "mountain of research"

Retail Supply Chain Alliance spokesperson, AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton, said that after years of hand wringing, inquiries and reports, it was time for action.

"This shocking new report can be added to the mountain of research indicating that Australian farms have become a hotbed of wage theft, exploitation, and worker abuse. It's not just Coffs Harbour either - pick a spot on the map, and you will find outrageous exploitation. " Mr Walton said.

He says it's time Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency, David Littleproud, woke up and took some responsibility for the sector.

"Under Mr Littleproud's watch, Australian farms have developed an addiction to illegality and a domestic and international reputation as a place where you are likely to be ripped off or worse. The Minister needs to stand up and announce his support for a Royal Commission urgently," Mr Walton said.

"This idea that exploitation is limited to a few bad apples needs to be done away with."

The union alliance says it doesn't have to be this way; with developed nations producing abundant horticultural exports without relying on labour exploitation to subside their product.

Hard at work.
Hard at work.

Key findings of the report

• No worker shortage in Coffs Harbour

The COVID-19 outbreak actually increased numbers of migrant workers (mainly Working Holiday Makers) to around 2000 in the Coffs area during the study.

• The Rapid growth of industry has led to bad behaviour

An increase of blueberry farms over five years has resulted in an influx of labour-hirers who exploit an abundance of short-term workers.

• Backpackers are being set up for exploitation

Tourists on the Working Holiday Maker visa wanting to extend their stay are vulnerable to underpayment, because of rules requiring them to work 88 days in regional Australia.

• Wage theft is a business model

Some workers have alleged gross underpayments as low as $3 an hour, orchestrated through the systemic abuse of piece-rates.

Berry body calls for fast tracking of national labour hire licensing scheme

Berries Australia is calling for a national labour hire licensing scheme to be fast tracked.

Berries Australia Executive Director Rachel Mackenzie said due to the significant increase in labour needs over the harvest period many growers outsource to labour hire providers who are able to co-ordinate across a large number of smaller growers and employers.

"Competition for labour is extremely high and now more than ever we need a level playing field. In many instances the grower pays the contractor the right money, but those funds never make it to the workers and the growers feel unable to push back as they need the crop picked," Ms Mackenzie said.

To read the full Blue Harvest report follow this link.