Arts & Entertainment

THE NAKED CITY – BLACKBIRDING IN THE MODERN ERA

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of watching the long running Australian TV series Border Security you will be familiar with the scenario of a border force officer interrogating a potentially illegal worker. What a cheek these foreigners have, trying to sneak into Australia on a tourist visa, when their real purpose is to work illegally and snatch a job from our own Aussie workers. Luckily the border bureaucrats are quick to spot an interloper and send them packing on the next plane home. 

Then again, if those foreign workers are coming here to do the jobs that Australians often shun, like picking fruit and vegetables, the border is open to all and sundry. With the absence of thousands of overseas backpackers, it’s no secret that farms throughout the country are desperate for workers to pick the harvest. The Federal Government is bending over backwards to bring them in, from countries in the Pacific Islands and South East Asia, but appears to have little concern for their welfare when they arrive. 

Foreign fruit pickers are supposed to receive the minimum wage of $25, guaranteeing them around $900 a week, but many employers reduce this amount with a series of deductions like grossly overpriced accommodation at $200 a week. It’s a situation that has existed for decades, exacerbated by the COVID era, and open to all manner of abuse.  

For centuries wealthy countries have exploited the poorly paid workers of economically depressed countries, whether it’s construction workers in Dubai or Mexican farm workers in the US. Australia is no exception and as early as the 1860s, thousands of Pacific Islanders were brought to Queensland to work in plantations for appallingly low wages. Whilst some signed contracts and came willingly, many were forced onto boats against their will in a practice that came to be known as ‘blackbirding’. 

It’s believed some 30% of arrivals died at the plantations as a result of exposure to European diseases, lack of decent food and maltreatment. With many buried in unmarked graves. It was as close to slavery as you could get. By 1901 it seemed many of the workers had served their purpose and the Pacific Island Labourers Act of the same year saw the mass deportation of some 10,000 indentured workers. 

In more recent years there have been numerous examples of mainly Asian women lured to Australia to work in the sex industry. The brothel owners, many of them aligned with organised crime, pay the workers airfares, meaning they arrive in the country with considerable debt. They are then forced to work long and arduous hours just to pay off the debt, often with their passports withheld. Successive governments have done little to stop this exploitation and the practice is still rife.  

During the legal institution of enslaving human beings in the USA, better known as ‘slavery’, runaway slaves were hunted down by professional slave hunters and packs of dogs. If captured and returned to their masters they often faced extreme punishment such as floggings, hobbling and even the amputation of limbs. It was a warning to other slaves that absconding would not be tolerated. 

Here in Australia in 2021, we would never consider the thousands of foreign workers coming here to work as farm labourers as slaves, heaven forbid – but absconding from your employer has some serious consequences. That’s the message that the Federal Government has been putting out during a recent education campaign. 

Ironically the literature contains the warning that if you do abscond “you could be mistreated by dishonest employers who do not provide fair working conditions that meet Australian laws” – the very reason that workers might quit in the first place. It also goes on to say that absconding will bring shame on your family back home. 

It seems to me the only shame here is the Federal Government’s failure to make sure all imported farm workers receive a decent wage, good working conditions and the kind of accommodation that will make their stay here a relatively pleasant experience – not being forced to live a shabby makeshift shipping container. If they are incapable of doing that perhaps it would be best to let the fruit and vegetables rot on the ground! 

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