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Let them pick fruit



An idea that’s gaining traction, in a pandemic where international travel has stopped and many Australians are losing their jobs, is this notion that the unemployed (aka: everyone on JobSeeker payments) should go out into the regions and help the farmers pick fruit.

An illustration of Scott Morrison as Marie Antoinette as people carry fruit below him. Illustration by Chris Johnston

It’s been reported that unemployed people are refusing work, including fruit picking. Tales of woe have been circulated about fruit literally ‘rotting on the ground’ and farmers destroying entire crops because no one will come to pick them. This is done in conjunction with stories of abuse and exploitation amongst backpacker seasonal workers being framed as ‘a stigma’, that these abusive farmers are little more than a few bad apples (if you’ll pardon the pun).

In addition to these attacks on the unemployed for being a lazy, farmer-hating section of the population, misconceptions and misinformation about the reality of the jobs sector and the lifestyle of the JobSeeker payment have spread wildly.

For every job vacancy, there are 13 people seeking a job. And the likelihood of making it to the interview stage for an entry-level role is probably not in your favour, especially if you have gaps in your resume or no previous experience as a bartender or a shelf stacker. Employers have reported being inundated with applications, even more than before COVID-19. Hundreds or even thousands of people might be going for the exact same role as you, and it’s estimated that this will continue for years. And while naysayers may insist that there are ‘plenty of jobs out there if you’re not afraid of hard work,’ it’s estimated that 400,000 more Australians will be unemployed by Christmas this year.

Even with statistics pointing to the lack of available jobs and evidence that supports a permanent rise to the JobSeeker rate, the current consensus in the Morrison government is that cutting JobSeeker will motivate people to get a job. According to the Prime Minister himself: ‘we can’t allow the JobSeeker payment to become an impediment to people going out and doing work, getting extra shifts.’

As entire industries have closed down or downsized, people have been applying for anything and everything. But not fruit picking, it seems, much to the chagrin of various ministers and leaders in the Morrison Government. Deputy PM Michael McCormack has tried to romanticise farming, having recently framed fruit-picking as something worthy of posting on social media, as though young Australians are selfie-obsessed, vacuous and lazy. ‘It would be a great Instagram moment for them to get up the tree, pick some fruit.’ According to McCormack, farming is also where ‘you’ll find more friends. You might find the love of your life.’


'It seems a bit strange to frame being exploited and barely able to afford accommodation as the solution to… being exploited and barely able to afford accommodation.'


Fruit picking may seem like a fun trip to the strawberry farm, filling a basket leisurely, sneaking bites from fresh berries and basking in the sun with your newfound future husband. But former fruit picker and Guardian columnist Steve Jones has pointed out that fruit picking is no easy feat.

‘You have to work quickly, carrying heavy bags of apples, or bent over picking strawberries... Every person has a quota, and in many places you’re only paid by how much work you get done. There’s a minimum wage, true, but if you don’t hit the targets repeatedly you’re likely to lose your job, and to meet those targets you have to work at full speed, all day… there’s also a lot to think about while you’re harvesting fruit, it’s not as simple as walking along and collecting everything in your path. When picking apples, you need to consider the size, the colour, whether they’re damaged, how firm they are… pick poor-quality fruit, and it won’t count towards your pay.’

The level of work and commitment required to pick fruit does not accommodate those who have rental leases, children and/or other dependents, or those who are disabled, aged, chronically ill, injured or living with mental health issues. Nor does the work accommodate those who don’t have their own transport. Even the National Farmers Federation concedes that the work and conditions required for harvesting fruit may be unsuitable for people ‘tied down by housing, family and social connections.’

This discussion about sending the unemployed of Australia out into the regions for apple picking is nothing particularly innovative. This same Marie Antoinette-esque ‘let them pick fruit’ conversation has happened in Britain, where Brexit negotiations in 2017 saw a decline in seasonal workers arriving from Eastern Europe, and it was posited that perhaps the unemployed should pick up the slack. In 2016, former Senator Nick Xenophon proposed that those who were receiving unemployment benefits should replace a reduced number of fruit-picking backpackers who weren’t coming to Australia (due to a ‘backpacker tax’). And in 2018, after the backpacker tax had made a few backpackers hesitant to work, Scott Morrison spoke of the subsequent labour shortage being filled with the unemployed: ‘this also ensures job seekers on taxpayer support have no excuse to refuse opportunities.’

But what if these ‘opportunities’ weren’t exactly what they said on the tin?

In 2016, while working under the Federal Government’s Seasonal Worker Programme, workers from the Pacific Islands who came to Australia to pick fruit found themselves left with as little as $9/week after deductions (accommodation and food). Backpackers working in Australian farms have also complained about being exploited in ‘slave-like conditions’ for as little as $4/hour so that their visas can be extended.

These instances should have prompted reforms in how we treat migrant workers, and how every job should be required to pay workers an appropriate, liveable wage. But we have learned nothing. We have not learned from stories about backpackers who have lived in repugnant accommodation, had conditions of their visa taken advantage of, who have been sexually assaulted or injured, who have been held captive and repeatedly abused. And places like these are where the government wants to send the unemployed. It seems a bit strange to frame being exploited and barely able to afford accommodation as the solution to… being exploited and barely able to afford accommodation.

When dwelling on the widespread lack of enthusiasm about a prospective fruit-picking job, consider that it’s not so much that people are afraid of a bit of hard work and have it too easy on the dole, but more so that people don’t want to do backbreaking and exploitative work for an income that’s little more than small potatoes.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, nor will it have a clean-cut economic resolution by the end of 2020. The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the current recession necessitate liveable JobSeeker rates and assurance for those on JobKeeper. It requires a world where underemployment is reduced, where jobs that pay below minimum wage are rightly paraded as inhumane. It requires intense structural change in how seasonal and casual workers are paid and supported.

It does not require unemployed and underemployed Australians (from the university student to the single mother) getting into the fields while politicians receive pay rises and the wealthy receive tax cuts.



Vivienne CowburnVivienne Coburn is an eclectic writer and ardent coffee snob from Brisbane. Her work has been featured in Junkee, Ibis House, PASTEL Magazine and on her mum's fridge. She is also the host of 'Spookzzz' on 4ZZZ (102.1 FM). You can follow her on Twitter @pearandivy

Topic tags: Vivienne Cowburn, fruit picking, jobseeker, unemployment



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Existing comments

This business of picking and packing fruit, the conditions and pay for workers, cannot be separated from the role of supermarkets (the demands they make on farmers) and the prices people pay for food. If we insist on proper conditions and pay for pickers, then the prices of fruit and vegetables will surely increase.

Janet | 13 October 2020  

Great article. I did fruit picking many years ago in my late teens. It was hand-to-mouth then, but back in the late 70s employers at least had to behave themselves because there were plenty of alternative jobs back in the cities. The work is also intermittent: three weeks picking in a single rural location was considered a good block; and after the 'good block', you would typically find yourself waiting a few weeks, spending whatever small reserves you had to survive, until the next opportunity came up - usually at a different country location entirely. Indeed, so often you would travel hundreds of kilometres to another township on the rumour that work was there, only to find you had to wait for weeks until a few weeks work was available. So glad that someone in the media is pointing this out - wish there was more of it. I must also say that I'm so ashamed of our once fair and decent country in doing so little about the horrific abuse and exploitation of young backpackers. Aside from ignoring this where our own are concerned, what did our government do in response to these reports of abuse of working visitors to our country, apart from over-tax them for the privilege? Great cartoon too. I'd like to wallpaper Sydney with it!!!

Marie Sheedy | 13 October 2020  

Also the 'so termed unemployed unworthy of receiving benefits' wont take the 'butt wiping" of politicians jobs, that come with hose 'pollies' who put themselves under threat by visiting such regional areas, needing small crops and fruit harvesting., And then there are the 'fanciful;' articles and claims of earning $3000:00 a week.Get real! Give yourself a week doing the work, living in the shed with 5/6 others, out of a suitcase, and getting screwed over by the Labour Hire Company which is supposedly being monitored by the Federal and Sate Governments. Just more bashing of the poor and voiceless by Government Ministers on fat salaries,

Laurie Sheehan | 13 October 2020  

Janet, you can't say "If we insist on proper conditions and pay for pickers, then the prices of fruit and vegetables will surely increase" and leave it at that! Unless you add "but that's the price we have to pay for justice" others will rightly conclude that you are saying "so suck it up for the greater good." On a different note, yesterday as my partner and I drove from Rockhampton to Gympie we paused in Childers for coffee and a sandwich. We saw the Backpackers Memorial and decided to pay our respects. It is twenty years ago since sixteen young fruit and vegetable pickers were incinerated in a hostel fire deliberately lit by some low life who is in prison and seeking to be released on bail. The people of Childers want him to stay locked up forever. Readers of Eureka Street should support them. Write to the Queensland government and demand they throw away the key.

Paul Smith | 13 October 2020  

...eloquently written. At the risk of introduction of yet another fruit-based precept, in considering wages and international workers (backpacker and work visa) it's relevant to compare "apples with apples". Frequently, "imported" workers are willing to work on comparatively low wages here because the buying power of the meagre Australian dollar wage is still much higher than the equivalent work wage at home. As a condition of their 417 & 462 visa, Backpackers must "work 88 days" in regional areas (approx each year) and extensions are up to three years; after the compulsory regional periods they can work in cities - and often do. The dissimilarities between the visa apple and JobKeeper apple become more obvious when we consider extended family or social responsibilities of parent, full or part-time carer and current part-time worker (as defined by Australia as more than ONE hour per week). Rural backpacker workers don't generally freight their familial obligations around with them. I have to question if the various ministers expounding the viability of "fruit-picking" for JobSeekers have considered the social security disruption for those who manage to live in the city risking their tiny safety-net to pick the Grapes of Wrath.

ray | 13 October 2020  

Symptomatic of the class struggle where workers are forced to work for a menial's hire and the querulous complaint of someone like Janet as it might lead to higher costs on the retail shelf. Good Heavens above. Marie Antionette was required to meet Madame Guillotine for her arrogant contempt for the masses and her remark of "let them eat cake," incredibly similar to Abbott's condescension about Manus which he described as a very pleasant place with health care benefits second to none. Of course that doesn't help the farmers but they can blame the politicians for the backpacker tax, the sell off of Bellamy milk powder, the letting of the Vic Rail tender to build trains to China, the sale of the port of Melb to help the BRI, the sale of Mariners wharf to another SOE, Jewell. And so it goes. It's a damn sight easier to sell farms and infrastructure to CCP than think about real ways to create the jobs so desperately needed in this country.

Francis Armstrong | 13 October 2020  

The other problem with short-term casual work for those on JobSeeker is that it means your Centrelink payments will be stopped. When the short-term work stops, you are then left with literally no income for however long it takes the complex, punitive, error-prone and difficult to contact Centrelink system to reinstate your payments. With no financial reserves behind them, JobSeeker recipients are better off playing it safe and just staying on welfare payments. But easier for this very un-Christian government to blame the victim.

Peter Schulz | 13 October 2020  

This splendid piece should be read in conjunction with an article published in the smh (October 12) https://www.smh.com.au/national/sexual-assault-lost-fingers-exploitation-in-an-industry-rotten-to-the-core-20201009-p563m2.html. Pay, accommodation and labour standards in this industry should be addressed immediately and retailers required to publish evidence that their fresh fruit and vegetables have been picked under humane conditions.

Jill Sutton | 14 October 2020  

I had a cousin who used to follow the fruit picking season around Eastern Australia. He gave it up when his income from the work no longer covered his costs. Speaking of costs, I wonder how those calling for the unemployed to travel to fruitgrowing regions expect them to get there, and survive until they get employment. Hitchhike, and then live in a tree, or something? Because if you've been unemployed for a while you can't afford to drive, or catch a bus, or pay for accommodation; and if you ever owned a tent, you've probably sold it to bring a few dollars in.

BJ | 14 October 2020  

Good on you Vivienne for analysing the real situations behind the fruitpicking industry. This is so comprehensive and important.

john bartlett | 14 October 2020  

This is another example of the effects of the commodification of human labour, the separation of the work from the worker. It's the gig economy all over again where the work is valued but the worker is not. The worker doesn't matter because you can always get another. So the relationship between those that hire and those that are hired is minimal and ephemeral. Such relationships might be part of an economy but can never be part of a society.

Ginger Meggs | 15 October 2020  

Paul Smith, your are right. I believe we should pay more for fresh fruit and vegetables. I already do because I buy organic. Unfortunately, the higher prices will mean many people can't afford fresh fruit and vegetables, and that is something that needs attention from a thoughful government (which, also unfortunately, we don't have.

Janet | 15 October 2020  

Francis Armstrong. I regret that I came across as querelous. I have no complaint at all about paying higher prices for fresh fruit and vegetables. As I explained in a previous comment, I already do. If I have a complaint it is directed at the supermarkets, who force prices down and sell fruit and vegetables long after they are fresh. When we had a greengrocer in our town, who bought fresh from the markets every day, the workers from the local supermarkets shopped there, saying they would not eat the food they had to handle so badly.

Janet | 15 October 2020  

There are lots of jobs begging for willing workers all over the country that can't be filled! I totally reject the premise of this article. Ie aged care, disability support, pushing trolleys at supermarkets, cleaning, bus drivers, nursing....

AURELIUS | 15 October 2020  

I think the fresh fruit/vegetables picking will fail. If we make too many regulations,conditions and accommodate workers(*pickers*) for, then the prices of fruit and vegetables will be dramatically increased. consumers will be too disinterested in purchasing fresh fruit and veggies. With a lot of the working class gone and people being on the benefits of jobseeker and other government services and living near the city and surrounding suburbs, I don't think people will leave the sanctuary of their homes whilst on the benefits to abandon everything and live on a farm (eg in the middle of WHOOP WHOOP). With Reference from ray comment: "It's either to live in the city risking their tiny safety-net to pick the Grapes of Wrath." I think overall the picking industry will struggle during covid and the lacking of international pickers and let's assume anyone at all who is picking it won't be sustainable or long term. The idea of $3000 for picking will be reduced like in the book grapes of Wrath. (eg) 5c - 1c. Great article! About the problems of the fruitpicking industry.

Flynn Cowburn | 15 October 2020  

The free enterprise economy doesn’t work well simply because you leave it alone. It works because of supportive pre-existing complexes of conditions which tweak it as it goes along. The tweaks are necessary because every social phenomenon is a machine. There are not many people where the orchards or farms are or those would be to settled neighbours with time on their hands what McDonald’s is to teenagers after 3 pm. Neighbours can take what farmers can afford because of natural cross-subsidisation from the facts of settled living where the farms happen to be. Farmers need towns, not transients, in proximity, and transients of choice (ie. tourists) can work anywhere.

roy chen yee | 16 October 2020  

I met a lot of backpackers mainly Malay when I moved back to northern vic three years ago. I still have copies of their WhatsApp conversations with a contractor on an organic veggie farm supplying the two big supermarkets. Fifty odd workers paid metre rate for hand weeding. By hand not hoeing. Started at $2 metre but none of them were paid. They were owed five weeks pay and had to keep working or risk never seeing any money. EXACTLY the same thing goes on with almonds tree pruning. Small tree 5to8 cuts with hand loppers 10 cents per tree. Yes there are some good growers but mostly small. Large Horticultural employers have raked in big dollars thru ‘job training’ for years. Harvest labour trail organisers are fully complicit. Many OS workers just want to escape now

Mark | 16 October 2020  

I live in an agricultural part of Australia being effected by lack of backpackers . I disagree with most of you that farmers take advantage of pack packers etc who come to work on their farms, not all farmers can be put into this category. Young unemployed could think of actually helping their country during this unusual time. World War II saw people of all types doing what they had to do to bring Australia through the depression that followed. Women became farmer's salvation coming from cities and other locations to do men's work of producing and harvesting fruit and vegetables to feed Australians. Maybe you know a Land Army Lady - they did this selflessly wanting to help. Come on young Australians we need you.

Kaye | 16 October 2020  

The problem was there long before COVID. With youth unemployment of 15-25% in regional Australia - why were they not forced to pick fruit years ago.

Basil | 25 October 2020  

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