There is a debate in Australia at the moment about easing the labour shortage by allowing “guest workers” into the country on temporary visas. Australia has a bit of history in migrant labour but not as much as those nations who share land boundaries and have not been saddled with the White Australia Policy that Australia held onto for decades.
It is time for Australia to accept its geographical and political position in South East Asia and the Pacific, but how does this relate to workplace safety?
The current debate is about easing the labour shortage in agriculture and, specifically, fruitpicking. For the guest worker scheme to work, Australia needs to show that guest workers are trteated with respect and are not being used as cheap labour, an accusation that is being bandied about. Respect means good working conditions as well as a proper salary and part of those conditions with be accommodation.
Greens Senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, emphasised this on 18 August 2008:
“While it is pleasing to see the Government provide much needed assistance and training for our Pacific neighbours, especially with the injection of money back into their respective communities, we must ensure that the guest workers are not exploited,” said Senator Hanson-Young. “Poor housing and contentious pay deductions are two issues that the Greens will be keeping a close eye on.”
The State of Victoria has a strong and large fruitgrowing area which. like most, relies on seasonal workers who reside on the property. The accommodation needs of farm workers is neatly summed up in the Victorian guidelines for shearing. Part of the guidelines state
In workplaces where accommodation and amenities are provided by the employer for employees, as is the case with shearers’ quarters on a property and amenities at the shearing shed, the amenities provided are regarded under the OH&S Act as part of the workplace. In this situation the general duty of care of the employer to provide and maintain for employees a working environment that is safe and without risks to health extends to the accommodation and amenities provided and to travel between the quarters and the shearing shed. (WorkSafe’s emphasis)
As has been proven in the past, migrant labour is frequently exploited, which is part of the trade unions’ concern with the scheme. OHS regulators, farmers and rural employers need to be assessing these facilities now (if it is not too late in the season) so that new employees can begin work confident that they will be well looked after and amply rewarded for their work. Even if there is no specific amenities compliance code or guidelines for this agricultural sector at the moment, there is plenty of information that indicates the decent way to treat guest workers.