Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear
On 28th January 1948, a Douglas Aircraft Corporation DC3 chartered by US Immigration Services crashed at Los Gatos canyon near Coalinga in California. There were no survivors and the casualties included several crew members and 28 migrant farm labourers. Initial mainstream media reports identified the crew although many of the remaining victims, which included contingent agricultural workers or braceros and illegal immigrants, were disparagingly categorised as deportees or collateral damage.
Airline Transport Carriers operated the flight but routine inspection of the plane was overdue and it was only certified to carry 26 passengers. The aircraft exceeded its permitted take-off weight and several passengers were randomly accommodated amongst the aircraft luggage. The plane was cruising over the Diablo Range when a trail of white vapour emerged from its left engine and suddenly ignited. The left wing was ripped from its fuselage and a spectacular fireball erupted as the aircraft plunged into the Los Gatos canyon.
Many of the unidentified bodies amidst the wreckage were scattered like dry leaves across the topsoil and their remains were eventually buried in a mass grave at Holy Cross cemetery in nearby Fresno. A commemorative headstone acknowledges the tragedy although each Hispanic victim was merely identified in the cemetery register as an anonymous Mexican national. The tragedy was lamented by the late Woody Guthrie and has since been covered by many other renowned artists, which include Nanci Griffith, Christy Moore, Paddy Reilly and Billy Bragg.
Following a prolonged campaign and painstaking research each victim was eventually identified and on Labor Day in September 2013 a memorial, which formally named the flight crew and each of the deceased migrants was unveiled at the Holy Cross cemetery.
Over seven decades later and despite numerous coronial inquests or official inquiries, the slaughter and exploitation of migrant fruit pickers across Australia continues. It was even endorsed via the federal government seasonal worker programme and supplementary Pacific Labour Scheme, which is effectively indentured servitude or peonage and reminiscent of blackbirding. This corporate welfare or socialism for the rich provides Woolworths and Coles with a malevolent freedom to harm. It also supports the relentless deification of shareholder theory and slakes their ravenous maws.
At the turn of the millennium, a fire at the Childers Palace backpackers hostel in Queensland resulted in the deaths of 15 young tourists. Local agricultural and horticultural businesses used the flophouse as a recruitment hub and many of its peripatetic residents were offered McJobs and subjugated via contingent labour hire arrangements. The ageing two-storey wooden structure was a tinderbox and many guests shared quarters equipped with tiered sleeping arrangements. The windows in an upper dormitory, which accounted for ten of the victims, were fitted with steel security bars and a bunkbed blocked access to the emergency exit. Smoke detectors throughout the entire structure were never maintained and fire alarms had been disabled. Many passports and other personal belongings were destroyed during the fire and identification of the deceased was exacerbated by rudimentary guest registration protocols. Following the coronial inquest no criminal charges were ever initiated against the hostel owners or its operators.
The Fair Work Ombudsman recently confirmed there had been over 80 fatalities throughout the agricultural and horticultural sectors in the decade leading up to 2016, which included numerous quad bike incidents on rural properties. Other victims suffered appalling injuries following the operation of dilapidated farming equipment or machinery and the horrific events often involved tractors with power take off shafts that frequently left vulnerable migrants disabled and permanently disfigured. This is aggravated by rampant intimidation with frequent accounts of sexual harassment and relentless abuse, which is underpinned by an autocratic and militaristic culture of fear.
The exploitation of itinerant workers and Dickensian working conditions throughout Queensland’s Wide Bay region using contingent labour hire is well documented. A young German backpacker died whilst working for Barbera Farms on a tomato plantation near Childers in December 2009. The cause of death was not released but following an extensive investigation and regulatory authority prosecution, the company pleaded guilty to breaching work health and safety legislation. It operated a labour intensive and contingent workforce but failed to supply drinking water for its employees and manage the risk of dehydration and heat stress. In November 2017, a Belgian tourist collapsed on a farm near Ayr in North Queensland whilst picking watermelons. The victim was transported to hospital and died the following morning from suspected heat stroke.
More recently, an extensive clandestine investigation involving a strawberry farm in regional Queensland revealed many undesirable consequences pertaining to the federal government Seasonal Worker Programme and its complementary Pacific Labour Scheme. This is exacerbated by a broken and easily manipulated working visa system. After working at the plantation for almost two months under contingent labour hire arrangements the young female accumulated just under $70 in savings and calculations indicate the parsimonious wages sometimes amounted to a meagre $2.50 per hour. The work was organised via a subcontractor engaged through a recruitment agency and expenses included shared accommodation at a cost of $125 per week. During the ordeal, the vulnerable migrant endured repeated sexual advances from the subcontractor, which included offers to live on his property with a significant increase in remuneration. Each year tens of thousands of young migrant female backpackers are channelled onto Australian farms and exploited but many of the victims are nonchalantly disregarded as someone else’s daughter.
Covino Farms in eastern Victoria is a principal supplier to many leading supermarkets. Over recent years the organisation received numerous provisional improvement notices relating to work health and safety misdemeanours and a significant fine following breaches of environmental legislation. In 2013 despite its mediocre performance, the company secured a $1.5 million grant from the State Government of Victoria, which was sanctioned by Denis Napthine, another neoliberal premier and avowed acolyte of trickle-down economics. The organisation operates a vegetable farm and packing facility, which employs several hundred permanent and casual employees near Longford in the Gippsland region of Victoria.
On the 31st December 2016, a vegetable packer engaged by a contingent labour hire provider was struck by a forklift and crushed by falling lettuce crates. The victim received multiple physical injuries, which included a dislocated shoulder, fractured pelvis and extensive bruising. It was the third significant safety incident at the Longford facility in almost two years and the organisation pleaded guilty and received a $80,000 fine with almost $5,0000 costs at Sale magistrates court for failing to maintain a safe workplace.
In Shepparton on 7th November 2015, a young Irish backpacker received appalling injuries whilst cleaning beneath a moving conveyor belt, which was used to deliver pears for packing and distribution. The young girl lost all her hair and an ear was ripped off when the scalp was torn from her head after she became entangled in a packing conveyor rotating drive shaft. The victim was rushed to a local hospital, stabilised and then transferred via air ambulance to Melbourne for further treatment. The horrific but preventable incident left the young lady permanently disfigured although the lucrative supply of superior crystal pears to Australia’s poker machine conglomerates continues. In the Shepparton magistrates’ court the organisation initially received a $50,000 fine with $22,000 costs to cover the WorkSafe Victoria investigation. Following an appeal the penalty was increased to $150,000 in the Shepparton County Court and a conviction was recorded.
Towards the end of 2016 federal immigration officials raided several agricultural properties south east of Melbourne near Koo Wee Rup, which is Australia’s largest asparagus growing district. The farms were owned by Joe Vizzarri, who was president of the Australian Asparagus Council and one of Australia’s largest asparagus and baby broccoli growers. Most of the produce was supplied to major supermarkets and the grower was acknowledged as the horticulture farmer of the year at a recent media event, which was attended by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews. The findings stunned the local community with almost one hundred illegal immigrants found working in the packing sheds and many others breached prescribed requirements on their working visas. During the raid, more than $400,000 in cash belonging to a labour hire provider was secured in two safes, which were concealed behind interior wall panels at one of the premises. Several people were eventually arrested and charged with illegal labour hiring offences. The federal police also seized more than $3.7 million in assets, which included properties valued at $2.95 million, a Mercedes SUV and several bank accounts containing approximately $800,000 in cash.
In 2018 dozens of farm workers from Vanuatu were engaged under the federal government Seasonal Worker Programme via Agri Labour Australia, a Brisbane based recruitment agency. The vulnerable migrants were allocated to the MCG Fresh Produce farm near Tatura, west of Shepparton in Victoria’s Goulburn Valley. Evidence indicates the inequitable arrangements were effectively serfdom or vassalage and often involved intimidation, underpayment and wage theft that was aggravated by unsafe working conditions, which included exposure to hazardous chemicals. The aggrieved litigants launched legal action against the labour hire company covering exploitation and gross underpayment. Agri Labour Australia strongly denied the accusations and did not concede to the allegations. The claim was eventually settled via undisclosed financial arrangements, which also enabled the plaintiffs to return to Australia and participate in the program if any future opportunities transpired.
Across the Bass Strait in Tasmania dozens of migrant berry pickers were frequently engaged by the Costa Group using a contingent labour hire provider under the federal government Seasonal Worker Programme. Almost 80 itinerants were discovered sharing a five bedroomed flophouse at La Trobe near Devonport in northern Tasmania. The substandard accommodation was arranged by the independent recruitment provider. It was equipped with dormitory sleeping arrangements and the Dickensian conditions were aggravated by an unreliable waste water treatment system that generated a persistent malodorous stench from the property. Several residents and neighbours expressed serious concerns with the local council regarding building and fire safety regulations. Each resident was charged $100 per week for the rental accommodation and also paid an additional $120 per week covering transport arrangements to and from the worksite.
Further west along the Bass Highway in Burnie, the former Brooklyn primary school, which is owned by the incumbent mayor, was converted into makeshift living quarters for migrant fruit pickers who were engaged across several plantations in the region operated by the Costa Group. The local alderman leased the refurbished school to an independent labour provider and was quite satisfied with the accommodation arrangements and condition of the property. The facility housed 20 migrant fruit pickers from Tonga and each resident was charged $130 per week for the rental accommodation although no tables or chairs were provided in common areas.
More recently, a survey and subsequent report from the former National Union of Workers documented the experiences of temporary migrants engaged in the picking and packing of fruit across farms and plantations throughout the Goulburn Valley and Sunraysia regions. This contrasts with the alabaster patina of perfection that often embellishes the mediocre performance of our supermarket duopoly. It depicts a foreboding miasma of intimidation, rampant exploitation, underpayment and wage theft, which is underpinned by a festering autocratic culture of corporate malfeasance, fear and dishonesty.
The survey confirmed almost two thirds of respondents earned below the minimum hourly award rate of $23.66 and their average gross pay was a parsimonious $14.80 per hour with some hourly rates reported as a meagre $4.60. The majority of labourers were engaged under contract labour hire arrangements and paid in cash without any payslips detailing superannuation payments or income tax deductions. A group of migrants in a rural area could expect to pay $150 per person for shared and frequently overcrowded accommodation with additional extortionate fees covering worksite transport arrangements. Following contingencies many of the subjugated peons are left with a frugal remuneration of less than $200 per week. Most of the findings reflect and align with the ABC Four Corners investigation entitled Slaving Away, which juxtaposes the plight of temporary migrants in a first world country under third world bondage.
This entire saga is reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath with its descriptive exploitation of migrant sharecroppers fleeing the Oklahoma dustbowl during the great depression in the 1930s. The spectre of Tom Joad has been rattling in many board room cupboards and the associated risks will significantly increase during the imminent harvesting season, especially amidst the COVID-1984 pandemic. Wesfarmers shareholders recently sanctioned the demerger of its Coles Group but retains a minor investment in the organisation, which will further obscure or even attenuate its statutory duty of care. The incumbent chairperson with Safe Work Australia is currently a nonexecutive director with Wesfarmers. Furthermore, a member of Australian OHS Accreditation Board, which accredits OHS professional education programs across Australia, was appointed as General Manager – Health, Safety and Wellbeing with the Coles Group.
Meanwhile, a recent overhaul of legislative requirements in Australia via the Australian Industrial Chemicals Introduction Scheme enables industry to classify certain chemicals, without any public disclosure or statutory notification. It will include many herbicides, pesticides and other agricultural or horticultural chemicals. The revamp was sanctioned by the federal minister for disease amidst a neoliberal maelstrom that inevitably favours corporate and state interests over public safety. Its trajectory is rather ominous, especially considering the recent wave of class actions across the United States and successful court decisions covering the use of glyphosate, which is currently classified as a non-hazardous substance by Safe Work Australia. Moreover, the following International Labour Organization conventions covering the use and handling of chemicals remain unratified by our federal government:
Our federal and state governments have conspired with the major corporate retailers and will never waste a crisis. There is no requirement to join any dots, it is simply painting by numbers and regulatory or policy capture prevails. A far more intense, inequitable and dystopian version of capitalism beckons via creative destruction using artificial intelligence and suprasurveillance. Following the COVID-1984 pandemic the new normal will generate an enormous increase in online shopping with extended credit, cashless payments and home deliveries from remote warehouses using subjugated Uber drivers, who will inevitably be replaced by drones or autonomous vehicles. This significantly reduces overheads, substantially increases profits and provides shareholders with a healthy return on investment. Meanwhile, property developers will eventually convert the redundant inner city and suburban shopping malls into residential apartments.
In an era of rampant casino capitalism Australia’s supermarket duopoly sits at the head of a brutal supply chain. Mercenary and socially autistic senior executives have embarked on a prolonged race to the bottom, which is supported by a feudal system of indentured servitude and vassalage. It is often juxtaposed in supermarket aisles via beguiling billboard iconography with avuncular farmers and contented growers gleaming over a bounty of barrels or handcarts packed with fresh organic produce. This exerts relentless pressure to drive down prices and reduce overheads, which significantly increases the risk of serious injury or death, especially amongst migrant farm labourers at the bottom of the supply chain.
The Pacific Labour Mobility Scheme enables approved employers to recruit workers from participating Pacific Island countries when sufficient local labour is unavailable. It complements the Seasonal Worker Programme, which is administered via the Department of Education, Skills and Employment under a cabinet minister with a unique but rather endearing ability to open her mouth and make her face disappear. The harridan minister for employment was also responsible the federal government JobActive Program, which incorporated a sinister Work for the Dole scheme. In April 2016 at the Toowoomba showgrounds west of Brisbane, a teenager participating in the notorious program suffered fatal head injuries after falling from a flatbed trailer, which was being towed by a tractor. Despite repeated requests under freedom of information the Subiaco besom steadfastly refused to release details of any risk assessment covering the activity or provide a formal report into the fatality.
The Seasonal Worker Programme and its supplementary Pacific Labour Mobility Scheme are demand driven structures, which are fraught with significant risk and merely boiler plate replicas of the cataclysmic home insulation program. The arrangements are underpinned by free market fundamentalism and have been usurped by corporate power with superficial protocols covering employer accreditation, supplier registration and frivolous supply chain audits. This is exacerbated by a sector that traditionally relies on casual labour with cash in hand payments, which is further antagonised by a chaotic visa system. It has generated escalating inequality with a foreboding subculture of disenchanted precariats that is way beyond the gaze of the lumpenproletariat or the mindless consumers in our supermarket aisles shopping on credit for what they want but don’t actually need.
On several occasions over recent years most members of our state and federal parliaments across Australia has been provided with a copy of my extensive treatise entitled How Grim Was My Valley – The Great Safety Charade. It raises these and many other significant workplace health and safety issues. Copies have also been provided to countless public serpents and other panjandrums in various statutory agencies, industry associations, trade unions and numerous quangos, which include our peak safety bodies.
The response has been a resounding silence and it is quite evident that industrial safety struggles with the doctrine of salvation or soteriology and attributes such as helping, compassion, caring, listening and learning are often incongruous with the organisation’s mission statement or vision. Indeed, sympathy merely lies somewhere between shit and syphilis in any corporate glossary although that melancholic lament from the bard of Mermaid Avenue resonates, especially at the bottom of the supply chain in the agricultural and horticultural sectors:
The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting
The oranges piled up in their creosote dumps
You’re flying ’em back to the Mexican border
To spend all their money to wade back again
Good bye to my Juan goodbye Rosalita
Adios mis amigos Jesus Y Maria
You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be deportees
Some of us are illegal and others not wanted
Our work contract’s up and we have to move on
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves
The skyplane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon
A fireball of lightning shook all our hills
Who are all these friends who are scattered like dried leaves?
The radio said they were just deportees