ISER's New Featured Story - Prof Joanna Howe

Farm workers

Undocumented migrants: Unearthing new knowledge on a precarious source of farm labour.

In line with ISER’s key principles of supporting sustainability and equity across all industries, Prof. Howe's research has examined how migration and employment laws might be remodelled to better support farm labour supply.

In a country like Australia which has a minimum wage and strong labour laws, you could be forgiven for believing that all Australian workers are paid fairly and treated well. Yet every time you do your weekly grocery shop, it is almost inevitable that you will purchase fruits and vegetables that were harvested by underpaid and exploited undocumented migrant workers.

The Australian horticulture industry has had a long history of endemic labour challenges. These challenges include systemic non-compliance with labour standards, with some sources reporting that farm workers in Australia who pick fresh fruit and vegetables are being paid as little as $1 an hour. The COVID-19 pandemic border closures caused a significant drop in migration to Australia, and with this the true precarity of the horticulture industry workforce was exposed.

The industry’s entrenched reliance on undocumented migrant workers became starkly clear, and supply chains across the country suffered. Now, a new research project led by Professor Joanna Howe from the University of Adelaide Law School will take a deep dive into this issue and will answer the many questions that still exist about the role of undocumented migrants in farm labour supply.

“These people are migrants who are working in the industry, but who lack a legal entitlement to work. They might be on visas without work rights, have expired visas, or be working in breach of their visa conditions”.Professor Howe

Professor Howe is a leading expert on the legal regulation of temporary labour migration, and holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in Law from the University of Oxford. She was appointed by the Minister for Home Affairs in 2022 as part of an expert panel to review the Australian migration program. Professor Howe’s first-of-its-kind study will help us understand why some farms employ undocumented migrant workers while some do not, and why these workers are employed in certain farming regions more than others.

“There’s so many questions that still need answering, and without the right data, our policies and laws might not actually be addressing the root of the problem”.Professor Howe

Answering these questions and shedding light on the dark underbelly of the Australian horticulture industry is essential as we reach a pivotal moment for Australia’s migration policy – not only because of the swift reopening of national borders and the associated spike in migration to Australia, but also because undocumented migrant workers are extremely vulnerable to exploitation. The undocumented status of these workers can be leveraged by unscrupulous actors to their own advantage by underpaying wages and creating exploitative work conditions, and undocumented migrants cannot report these conditions because of the risk of deportation. 

In line with ISER’s key principles of supporting sustainability and equity across all industries, this research will advance our knowledge about one of Australia’s most critical challenges – how we can create an equitable and efficient farm labour supply so the horticulture industry can grow sustainably and contribute to Australia’s food security and economic success. 

Professor Howe and her team will examine how migration and employment laws intersect with the relevant regulations and policies, and how these intersections might be remodelled to better support farm labour supply. 

“We’ve recently seen attempts to introduce an Agriculture Visa and continued reforms to other schemes like the Seasonal Worker Program, the Pacific Labour Scheme, and the Working Holiday Program. All of these are sources of migrant farm labour, and with the recent policy reforms this is the perfect time to undertake a study unearthing new knowledge in this area”.Professor Howe

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Tagged in sustainability, ISER, australia, decent work