Australian Blueberry Growers' Association executive director Alex Smith.
Australian Blueberry Growers' Association executive director Alex Smith. Jasmine Minhas

Farmers who flout the law should get out of the industry

BLUEBERRY farmers who exploit their workers have been put on notice.

Alex Smith, Executive Director of the Australian Blueberry Growers' Association was responding to this week's ABC investigation into the conditions of backpackers working on farms.

Some told of sexual harassment, exploitation and slavery-like conditions.

A film crew from the 7.30 Report travelled to Woolgoolga recently to interview a female backpacker from Asia working on a blueberry farm.

She also likened the conditions to 'slavery' with limited access to toilets and pay rates as low as $20 a day.

 

Mr Smith saw the report and says some farmers need to "have a good look at themselves."

"For hundreds of families it is their livelihood. You run the risk of being fined and prosecuted and if that's the case maybe you should go and do something else," Mr Smith said.

"There might be a small group of growers who don't want to change and openly flout regulations and we're certainly not going to protect them. The authorities need to give them a chance but go after them if they flout the rules.

"This industry has a few people who would probably better off going somewhere else, and doing something else, if they're not prepared to abide by the rules."

He spoke of an expanding large export market for Australian produce and stressed that seasonal workers are vital to help supply that market.

"Many farmers are taking advantage of that emerging market so they need access to seasonal workers and if owners don't adopt good practice those seasonal workers are not going to come back. It is a competitive market."

Australia's 88-day visa law has long been identified as a contributor to the exploitation of backpackers.

To qualify for the second year of a working holiday visa, visitors must complete 88 days seasonal work in regional Australia.

Designed to encourage backpackers to spend more time in regional areas and to provide much-needed seasonal workers for farmers, the arrangement has been widely criticised and Mr Smith agrees there needs to be more flexibility with the scheme.

"I think that more portability will allow them not to be welded onto a grower with poor practice. It's about more flexibility - giving pickers the ability to move from one grower to another."

In an area of high youth unemployment he would also like to see more young local people working on farms but concedes the irregular nature of the work can impact (potentially cutting off) social security payments.