Australia’s shame: the new blackbirders

coomealla 1
Smoko on the last day of the season. With blockies Hadyn Judd and “Uncle Tom”.
Casualties of the new order, the couple at left were only with us for a few days.

I’ve worked at lots of different jobs in my life including, but not confined to as the briefs say, working in abattoirs, a cheese factory (where all the work was still done by hand), a timber mill, a mine, a fish and chip shop; as a demolition labourer, a seagull (casual wharf labourer), sideshow spruiker, cook, farmhand, and of course at my trade as a compositor (typesetter) and later copy editor and writer.

Why? Because I wanted to. I wanted to see what it was like to work on the mutton chain, in the hold of a ship; to yell: “Roll up, roll up, layze and genlmn, boyzzz n girlzzz; two ducks down wins a prize” at the front of a canvas shooting gallery*. I had a deep need to work among people whose lives colour the pages of novels and plays, folk tales and legends, the same sort of people I grew up among. Back in the 1980s, I spent two-and-a-bit years as a fruitpicker and general orchard hand in the irrigation country near the confluence of the Murray and Darling rivers, out on the edges of the beautiful red country whose flood and famine years have shaped so much of Australia’s folk history, and that brings me to the point of this story – widdershins as is my custom.†

Over recent months, there have been disturbing murmurings on ABCTV about the conditions faced by foreign workers, recruited in their homelands and brought to Australia under special visa arrangements to work as pickers in our orchards and vegetable paddocks. Some of them I suspect – young 20-somethings from Taiwan, Japan and Korea – sign up in the mistaken belief that they will be able to have a “working holiday”, while others, particularly those from the South Pacific island nations, see it as a way of earning money that they can send home to their impoverished families.

The conditions under which most of them live and work are, to put it mildly, pretty grim, but grim can be bearable if you’re getting paid for it. On Thursday 26th February, 2016, the ABC’s 7.30 report dug into this national embarrassment yet again and it is now patently obvious that governments and the agencies that regulate such things are condoning conditions that break this country’s labour regulations: workers charged $120 a week each to share a ramshackle caravan with six others, deductions purposely designed to keep them broke, and sexual exploitation of the women seem to be just some of the wrongs. Some of the Asian kids are flown out to the workplaces, living here for months not knowing where they are other than that they are in Australia. Welcome to the country that prides itself on its doctrine of the fair go, kids.

Back in the years around the turn of the 19th century, the canefields of Queensland and northern New South Wales were worked by men and women brought from the islands of the South Pacific as ‘indentured labour’, by a shameful trade known as “blackbirding”. The islanders, many of whose descendants still live in the country that encouraged their enslavement, were known as “Kanakas”, from the word for ‘man’ in one of the many island dialects. Often recruited at the point of a gun, they put their marks to meaningless contracts that doomed them to a life in exile. Great fortunes were made and companies grew fat on this human trafficking. Burns Philp and Co Ltd was so prominent in the business that it was still known as “the Kanaka company” when I was a youngster. And now, in the 21st century, the blackbirders are back with us, disguised as labour hire contractors.

What is equally shameful is that the governments condoning the illegal conditions under which they work are quick to parrot the labour contractors’ catchcry that they “can’t find locals willing to do the work”. In this lies a great irony, for these same governments, local state and federal, are more than a little to blame for the paucity of home-grown pickers and farm labour.

My first year working in the grapes coincided with a push to ‘bring progress’ to the region. It was decided that the old pickers’ huts were unsightly and a health hazard and so most of them were demolished and with them went the cheap accommodation. Caravan parks in the fruit areas immediately raised their prices every picking season, and the Fruit Fly Special – cheaper fares in extra coaches added to a weekly night train between Melbourne and Mildura – was discontinued. Itinerant workers were immediately placed at a disadvantage, as were the unemployed who found it difficult, if not impossible, to raise the necessary cash for the fare, let alone pay in advance inflated rentals in caravan parks. The cafes and pubs followed suit, many watering holes raised their beer prices for the duration of the season – some by as much as 10c a middy.

Kids who had lived all their lives in the city were told by the employment agencies to take a tent, sleeping bag and cooking gear. Arriving in the blocks the choice was to live in a tent pitched in a caravan park at exorbitant fees or in the grape blocks, where daytime temperatures on the ground can reach 50°C – add to this the fact that it takes at least a week for a green picker to harden up, let alone become proficient enough to earn anywhere decent money. Many of them lasted less than a week and had to struggle home as broke as when they arrived.

To add insult to penury, the Australian Taxation Office decided to change the tax regulations as they applied to seasonal workers. Taxes were to be deducted in advance and based on earnings of the averages earned by pickers in a good season. This made it almost impossible for an inexperienced picker to get ahead in a hurry.

When I worked in the dried fruit blocks (back in the 80s), sultanas were paid for at the rate of $19 per hundred dip tins (a ‘dip’ held about 7 kg sultanas, 3–5 bunches in a good year). To earn anything like reasonable money, and to be of full use at harvest time, a pair of pickers (you work one each side of a row and so both have to pull their weight) needed to fill at least 300 dips a day. This doesn’t sound much, but the day is spent in searing temperatures, half-crouched or on your knees and tormented by gentle Annie, Bathurst burr, cat-head and other ferocious weeds. As you gain experience and harden to the conditions – and acquire the mental capacity to stick it – 1000-a-day tallies and higher can be achieved, but it’s exhausting work.

But such tallies are only possible in a good season. Late frosts, rain at harvest time and a host of other causes can reduce the yield to the point where it is almost impossible to make wages. For this reason, tax deductions based on good seasons were almost the last straw. Families who for generations had followed the fruit and vegetable seasons from Queensland to South Australia and back again dropped out of the industry altogether, and the annual influx of hopeful city dwellers dwindled to a trickle.

The old pickers’ hut at Coomealla

I count myself lucky to have been involved in the industry, albeit in the death throes of its glory days. There were still plenty of professional pickers working the grapes and oranges and, like them, I could make good money in the off-season pruning, or being paid a rate of $20 per hundred vines for “pulling out” – stripping the dead, pruned canes from the wire trellis in midwinter. Orange picking at $34 per half-tonne bin also helped the kitty. I was doubly lucky that I lived in one of the last pickers’ huts in the region. A two-roomed fibro shack ventilated by corrugated iron shutters propped up with sticks, an outside bucket toilet and a hessian-screened shower, amply supplied with hot water thanks to a little donkey boiler that heated a 44-gallon drum of water. The rent was a nominal $15 a week but we never paid any, our friendly and fair employers – Seventh Day Adventists – always came up with some excuse why we needn’t: an extra hour or two worked, or helping on the drying racks when one of the family was absent.

It wasn’t long before the home-grown pickers all but vanished from the scene, leaving the field wide open for snide operators who, encouraged by governments only too happy to turn a blind eye when their are votes to be had, and oblivious to the human cost of their business, ushered in a 21st century version of blackbirding. The factory farm mentality has also played a part; animals are merely entries on a balance sheet and human labour is a bothersome expense. All the while supermarkets attempt to widen their profit margins at the expense of the small farmer and the circle becomes ever more vicious and ever tighter.

Will anything ever be done about it? Not really. Oh there’ll be little flurries, Coles and Woolies will make comforting noises about ethical marketing, and politicians will fuss and fume while making sure they do nothing to stop the exploitation.

C’mon Australia – can we really accept this?

*The sights on shooting gallery ‘rifles’ aren’t bent by the way, there are other ways to foil those who look like winning too much “stock”, as the prizes handed out to the successful were known.

†The habit of approaching a tale this way often annoys me as much as it probably does those who read it. Maybe it’s a genetic quirk inherited from my ancestors, whose rich oral traditions demanded that a tale be woven thread by thread, until the listeners were enmeshed in the warp and weft of events and by so enjoying it, committed it to memory so that they, too, could pass it on to future generations. Or maybe I just talk too much, a result of living a lot of the time inside my head with my own thoughts. And there I go again.

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