Unions have called for an end to the Working Holiday Maker program, but growers say they rely on the extra labour for harvest.
The Australian Workers’ Union, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association and the Transport Workers’ Union said ending the program would stamp out widespread worker exploitation and provide more jobs for young people in regional Australia.
AWU national secretary Daniel Walton said work needed to be done to break an industry model that rewarded exploitation.
“This is an industry that is essentially lawless, totally broken and run by industry cowboys,” Mr Walton said.
“It needs an overhaul from top to bottom that looks at every policy parameter — visas, worker rights, labour hire, enforcement — the lot.”
Ardmona's Intregrity Fruits orchardist Peter Hall said he employed backpackers every year and had built great friendships with overseas workers.
“I respect a person who wants to come and pick fruit, without them, I can’t get my crop harvested,” Mr Hall said.
“Every workplace has examples of exploitation, and that’s why we have legislation that deals with that — I’m not sure why agriculture is being singled out.”
He said orchardists had shifted to paying hourly award rates to ensure fruit was picked at a moderate pace and was not damaged from a rushed job.
Citrus Australia chief executive Nathan Hancock said all options were needed to help people find work in agriculture.
“The need for programs like the Working Holiday Maker program and the Seasonal Worker Program were developed and supported by Federal Governments over the years because the need existed; industry could not find workers no matter the unemployment rate, and I am afraid under current policy settings that will remain the case,” Mr Hancock said.
Apple and Pear Australia chief executive Phil Turnbull said the Working Holiday Maker program was a vital source of mobile workers.
“Any worker wanting ongoing employment picking fruit needs to be willing and able to continuously relocate as the harvest unfolds — that’s why it has proven popular with holiday makers,” Mr Turnbull said.
“It’s also the key reason why it’s not as popular with local workers who, like many of us, place a much greater value on long-term employment in their community and with their friends, families and networks.”
Fruit Growers Victoria grower services manager Michael Crisera said in some regions backpackers could make up 50 to 80 per cent of the horticulture workforce during harvest.
“The availability of backpackers ensures the intermittent supply of labour is needed when crops are ready to pick,” Mr Crisera said.