Food as if by magic: how can Australia thank its seasonal workers?

Food as if by magic: how can Australia thank its seasonal workers? (Unsplash/Stephanie Mccabe)
(Unsplash/Stephanie Mccabe)

Not long ago, as a result of the PhD process, a friend of mine found himself cranking a pushbike around for a food delivery company. Asked about it, he said it was cold and poorly paid, but that what really surprised him was the number of people who couldn’t bear to look at him.

‘Just leave it at the door,’ he would be curtly instructed, and rarely even a tip, although the app allowed people to give one at the push of a button.

This was pre-pandemic, so a misanthropic rather than a virus thing. They wanted a family-sized Hawaiian pizza or Korean fried chicken with kimchi fries, but not human contact, or the merest hint that their meal hadn’t appeared there by magic. Dinner gobbled with nary a moment of reflection. Distasteful. Not literally.

Although no one says it out loud, the command ‘just leave it at the supermarket’ is an accurate enough way of describing what happens at the pointy end of commercial agriculture in 2020 – a system that allows us all to benefit from ‘food as if by magic’, the product of ecological and human processes that, though not always benign, the ‘better-off’ never need to see. True, there is an inevitability to this, but this does not mean that we should not recognise its risks. People who work out of sight and out of mind are more vulnerable than those who don’t, and even during ordinary times, a society concerned with the conditions of those that feed it is more ethical that one that is not.

Throughout this pandemic, while many of us have ‘sheltered in place’, agricultural workers have stayed on the job. For the approximately 8,000 that are here as part of the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) and the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS), a public acknowledgement of their continuing efforts in keeping us fed throughout this crisis is not just the right thing do, but a gesture that will give Australia’s characterisation of its labour mobility programs as a partnership with our smaller neighbours much needed substance.

The SWP and PLS, as have been discussed extensively on this blog, seek to address both labour shortages in regional Australia and high unemployment across the Pacific. Farmers who wish to join the SWP are vetted for their ability to house, pay, and care for the workers, and then continue to be monitored for as long as they’re part of it. The evidence so far shows both programs are a success, but the system, predicated on borders being open and airline routes functional, is now being stress-tested in ways that no one imagined it would.

Generally speaking, it has held up well. Visas were extended to ensure that no one ended up staying in the country illegally. A pre-existing initiative intended to allow workers to transfer between Approved Employers was scaled up to keep underemployment at a minimum. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing bureaucratically, but it hasn’t been totally disastrous either.

All this said, workers who expected to be here for five or six months are stuck until border restrictions ease or special arrangements are made for their repatriation. Everyone has reacted differently. One acquaintance is relishing the chance to save money and see more of the country. Facebook posts of his voyage from strawberries to broccoli include photos of their cabin on the Spirit of Tasmania and a video of him being swarmed by colourful/hungry parrots at a caravan park in Queensland. Another is happy to stay put near Bairnsdale, but finds the winter miserable, his housemates tiresome, work boring and talking to his family through a phone getting old.

Even some of those who expected to stay for years as part of the PLS have found it hard going. At an abattoir in Warrnambool, my friend Pedro is looked to – by dint of his age, temperament, and status as a veteran of similar work in the UK – as a leader by 45 anxious younger compatriots. Pedro was paying for his sister’s chemotherapy. When he could, he personally accompanied her from Dili to Kuala Lumpur to undergo treatment. She died back in Timor Leste, not long after all the borders shut, and there was just no way he could return to say goodbye. His reaction was stoic. He knew a lot of people were relying on him being strong. But his sacrifice should not be ignored. People like him are why we still have access to affordable sausages and berries while we were/are in lockdown. A gesture of appreciation is in order.

What would such a gesture look like? It need not be expensive. A commemorative medallion (‘SWP 2020, Australia says thanks’)? A worker delegation invited for afternoon tea with the Governor General? A video from the PM posted on Facebook? Just ideas. What is undeniable is that some sort of acknowledgement is an imperative. Pacific workers have helped feed us throughout this crisis and we will be a lesser nation if we ignore that.

This post is part of the #COVID-19 and the Pacific series.

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Michael Rose

Michael Rose is a researcher at the University of Adelaide.


  • Thanks for the exposure Micheal!
    The SWP and PLS, as have been discussed extensively on this blog, seek to address both labour shortages in regional Australia and high unemployment across the Pacific. Farmers who wish to join the SWP are vetted for their ability to house, pay, and care for the workers, and then continue to be monitored for as long as they’re part of it.“

    Farmers must not be burdened to pay the high cost.Our farmers are a forgotten bunch they have gone through the drought, the floods and the fires and yet we expect them to feed Australia at the market price stipulated by Coles, Woolworth, ect.
    The Government needs to support by making it economically viable for both the farmers and the workers..
    Pacific Worker exploitation and separation from family is harsh.consideration must be taken when recruiting . The Pacific culture is neatly tied together by family and this forced separation has a long term effect on families which will lead to social issues such as divorce, domestic violence etc.
    There must be mutal understanding between all parties involved to make it a success.

    PNG has the least number of SW considering it’s a leading nation in the Pacific. This is an indication that there are unresolved issues that needs attention to make this program a success.
    I believe more needs to be done to even call it a success.

  • Local communities can be of help. I sourced 12 blankets for Ni Van in the neighbourhood. I have requested they return them to me for storage for next winter.

    • Hi Carol. People such as yourself who are willing to go the extra mile to help out are an often unheralded part of what makes the SWP possible- rural Australia at its best. Regulation and monitoring are essential, but a supportive community is necessary if either are to be really effective.

  • Disturbing story on your friend being asked to leave food at the door without any acknowledgement for the service. I strongly endorse the suggestions for recognition of the service our seasonal workers provide to the community. The least Australia can do is ensure that the workers are paid and looked after well. Any recognition over and above that would be icing on the cake.

    • Hi Satish. Thanks for engaging. You’re absolutely right that making sure our seasonal workers are paid and looked after properly has to be the first priority. As far as I can see, with the occasional unfortunate exception, so far the SWP has worked pretty well in making sure this happens, and now seems poised to grow further. This being the case, I hope that it will increasingly foster closer economic and person-to-person ties between Australia the Pacific- public recognition of the essential work that seasonal workers do could be part of that.

  • Nice article! You are right, the “people who work out of sight and out of mind are more vulnerable”. The farmers are one such group. It might be interesting for you to look at the recent policies by Indian Government that aims to double the income of farmers. How these claims are working?

    • Thanks for your comments Uday. I’ve just downloaded the NITI policy paper and will pursue with interest. The context is certainly different from that prevailing in Australia (the issue here tends to be more about the lack of labour than the lack of money), although as you point out the ethical challenges stemming from the invisible nature of much agricultural work are fairly universal.

      • Hi Mike, I wish to pursue the topic that we discussed particularly with some interest on current protests by the farmers in India. Having read the NITI Aayog’s document that aims to double the farmer’s income and the introduction of new farm bills your insights would be interesting to the readers. Regards

    • Thanks Kate. Hopefully putting it up on the Development Policy blog is a good first step. We’ll see where it goes from there.

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