There have been stories recently on the ABC that have revealed the extent of the slavery conditions that migrant workers are subject to whilst working on Australian farms harvesting fruit and vegetables – mainly for the large supermarket chains and fast food restaurants. Four Corners produced an excellent and insightful program called “Slaving Away” and this topic was also featured on the ABC News.
The Four Corners program explains: “There is slave labour in this country.” A Four Corners investigation has uncovered gangs of black market workers run by unscrupulous labour hire contractors operating on farms and in factories around the country. The produce they supply ends up in our major supermarkets and fast food chains.
“Almost every fresh product that you pick up… will have passed through the hands of workers who have been fundamentally exploited.” – Union official. These labour hire contractors prey upon highly vulnerable young foreigners, many with very limited English, who have come to Australia with dreams of working in a fair country. They’re subjected to brutal working hours, degrading living conditions and the massive underpayment of wages.”
This story is an important one and needs to be told. The exploitation of migrant workers is a disgraceful situation and needs to be rectified. But there is a bigger issue at hand here, driving this exploitation, and it is one that no-one is talking about.
Farmers featured in this story defend their decision to use grossly underpaid migrant workers as that is the only way they are going to be able to afford to make a living from their crop and keep their business alive. Without entering into this type of exploitation they would not be able to continue farming. Which fundamentally means that their business model is flawed and they are not selling their produce for a price that reflects the real cost of producing that food. And we all end up paying the price for a food system that is inherently flawed and unsustainable.
We live in consumers world where there is a constant demand for bigger, better and cheaper. No longer are we willing to pay for quality, and with dollars stretched further than ever before, a bargain is the ultimate goal. Unfortunately we have taken our consumerism mentality and applied it to an area of life that should never have been a part of the equation – the food we eat. As monoculture agriculture and government subsidies have driven food prices down, it has allowed a new industry to develop – that of processed foods.
No longer is food just food, but it has become a commodity that has entered the price wars with consumers able to eat manufactured items that cost very little. The detriment to health is not a consideration, as multi-national food companies compete for their share of the marketplace with chemicalised, processed, merchandise that often has very little “real food” contained in it. Consumers are conditioned to put both real whole foods as found in nature, into the same category as processed fake foods (it’s all “food” isn’t it?). And the fake foods are always going to be cheaper. Chemical colours, flavours and preservatives cost only a few cents – and when you can produce a product in bulk and store it on the supermarket shelf for years, you have a very lucrative item that can be marketed as food to an unsuspecting public. As I write in The ‘F’ Word Solution:
“Wholefood suppliers are not in a position to compete with the bulk food manufacturing industry. The costs to produce wholefoods are high, and there are very few dollars available for marketing purposes. One apple grower is not going to be able to pitch a catchy branding campaign to grab market share from another apple supplier. An apple is an apple and the consumer knows that. But when it comes to processed foods it is not difficult for marketers to find an angle to promote, giving their product an advantage over others. Wholefoods as an industry suffers badly from the onslaught of advertising that renders most natural foods invisible in the marketplace.”
If you follow the trail of the exploitation of migrant workers on fresh produce farms it ultimately leads back to consumer mentality. When we have the choice between paying the real cost of a piece of organically grown produce, or buying a packet of processed “fake food” that is marketed as edible – many people choose the cheaper option. And that is sad. The value of real food has been so degraded in the marketplace that most people are not willing to pay the true cost. Until we start recognising as a society the true worth of organically grown fruits and vegetables we are not going to halt the slavery issue. Demand equals supply, and unfortunately the demand for cheaper food ensures that these major issues are not going away anytime soon.