Story by Tammi Jonas, President of AFSA, May 2015
Fair labour requires a fair food system
Most farmers work hard to grow food in a way that they believe is fair. They’re usually surprised and even hurt when someone suggests they’re exploiting natural resources, animals, or their workers.
Even with a bit of practice under my belt, my heart rate still increases when the vegan abolitionists call me unethical, a murderer and a profiteer. But then I breathe deeply and carry on solidly in the belief that what Stuart and I are doing at Jonai Farms & Meatsmiths is right.
But what if the allegations can’t be dismissed as simply a contrary ethical position? It’s hard to acknowledge that your food might be unfair, but that’s the realisation farmers who are using unscrupulous labour-hire contractors are facing after last Monday’s expose on Four Corners.
If you haven’t seen the episode, it’s a grim look at what’s behind the Down Down and Cheap Cheap campaigns of the duopoly (Coles & Woolworths). Brutally long working hours, systemic underpayment and pay delays, and stories of verbal and sexual abuse abound amongst those interviewed. Young men and women on the 417 working visa weep at times as they tell their stories and share the hopelessness they feel at ever escaping systemic exploitation on Australian farms.
Labour-hire contractors are held up squarely to blame, with many farmers professing not to really know what the conditions are for the workers the contractors bring them. While there are a couple of farmers accused of being repeat offenders themselves, the picture we get is that most of these farmers have outsourced their human resources needs to independent contractors, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, this has led to a culture of exploitation by those keen to make an easy buck off the labour of others.
But while we may point fingers at labour-hire contractors, farmers, or the duopoly – all of which must bear some responsibility for the part they play – we should ask what are the structural issues here? It’s systems that create opportunities for such exploitation, and people then exploit systems.
We must question the orthodoxy of productivism and 'growth'
In a system that values growth and profit over people, animals, and soil, exploitation is a given. The reality is that multinationals are mining the land for a short-term gain, people are confining pigs and poultry in the ammonia of their own excrement in the name of efficiency, and others are exploiting vulnerable migrant workers to ensure there’s enough chicken on the Coles rotisserie to feed the insatiable hunger of our convenience culture.
There have been calls for a task force or a Royal Commission into the exploitation of migrant labour. Many (including me) encourage us to boycott the duopoly. These are worthy ideas, but where is the call to question the contemporary orthodoxy of growth? The industrial orthodoxy of productivism – grow more for less… if you can’t, you must not be efficient enough (if you can, what are you paying your workers, how is your soil, are your animals in sheds, and are you one of the majority of Australian farmers with off-farm income?). The government tells us we must export more, that the nation’s well being depends on growing markets overseas… but are we even feeding our own sufficiently?
As long as our governments are beholden to the coffers of miners, the major supermarkets, and growing our exports, we cannot systematically address the problems of exploitation – not of labourers, not of animals, and not of our precious soil.
We farmers need to be vigilant for fairness in our system at all times. When it comes to labour, that can be challenging, especially in more knowledge- & labour-intensive agroecological systems like those proliferating in the fair food farming movement.
Help us build the connected, fair food system
Buckminster Fuller famously said that “You never change something by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
The fair food movement is trying to do just this. We’re trying to grow food that is fair to soil, water, air, plants, animals, and people, and we’re doing it through connectedness. The old food system is killing us with its invisible ingredients, obscured animal welfare practices, and hidden social costs. The new system values transparency and connection, wholeness and wellness.
So while individually we can boycott some of the major culprits, we can’t fix the unfairness of our food system alone. Collectively we can work to protect the rights of workers on farms and elsewhere in the food system, and to improve the welfare of animals in agriculture, and to ensure our soils and water are nourished and regenerated. We can vote with our wallets every day, with our farming and hiring practices, and we can effect systemic change by joining the food sovereignty conversation to work together for a fair food future for Australia.