Skip to content Skip to footer

MEDIA RELEASE   New research released today highlights the risks for undocumented farms workers in Australia in the Covid-19 pandemic, with workers at high risk of infection.

Undocumented workers in the farms sector are at risk from substandard living and work conditions, including overcrowded housing. The risks they face of detention and deportation also means that these workers are unlikely to participate in testing. These factors do jeopardize Australia’s initial successes in controlling Covid-19.

United Workers Union, the farm worker union, demands urgent action to resolve this risky situation. The coronavirus crisis has put the importance of our food supplies in the spotlight. We are calling for a status resolution to enable undocumented workers to transition into a visa that enables them to work lawfully in essential industries (in the same way seasonal workers are able to). A transitional visa will assist these workers continue in their essential role of picking the fruit and vegetables Australian buy and eat and mitigate the risks they face in the Covid-19 crisis.

The key findings in the report Covid-19 and Undocumented Workers in the Australian Horticulture Industry by Associate Professor Joanna Howe from University of Adelaide and Dr Ankur Singh from University of Melbourne:

  • Undocumented workers are prone to a high risk of infection and generating new clusters of infection;
  • Undocumented workers have precarious living and work conditions – these put at risk Australia’s initial success in controlling Covid-19 infection;
  • Substandard and overcrowded accommodation, the nature of work on farms, sharing of essential facilities and the social and economic circumstances of undocumented workers place them at risk of low compliance to physical distancing and these workers are unlikely to opt for testing and assist in contact tracing;
  • Without addressing the fear of detention that undocumented workers have because of their uncertain immigration status, it will be almost impossible for the government to mitigate the public health risks arising from undocumented workers during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Jannette Armstrong, Farms Director for United Workers Union says, “United Workers Union is calling for urgent action on visas to resolve the unacceptable and dangerous situation undocumented farm workers are in.

“The importance of our food supply has really come to the fore during this crisis. Our farms members are the essential workers who pick the fruits and vegetables we all eat. Australia’s supply of fresh produce is crucially dependent on temporary migrant workers and undocumented workers. We all benefit from their labour. They are real people with real lives and health and safety needs – and they hope for a better future and desire to be visible in our communities. They have spent years toiling through adversity to feed us and help build our horticulture sector. They deserve government support.

“A visa amnesty for farm workers has long been the right thing to do – for the workers, for farming businesses and the security of the horticulture labour force. The public health issues related to Covid-19 add extra urgency to those calls. There should be no profiting from the black market of undocumented labour in Australia, and no one’s lives should be put at risk because of it.

“This research shines a light on the high-risks during the Covid-19 pandemic for these workers. Visa status resolution for farm workers is in all our best interests, and giving undocumented workers visa legitimacy will minimise exploitation and ensure their work rights can be upheld and enforced.”

Horticulture worker Mani says, “There’s no other way for so many of our friends that we work with to be safe if they don’t have a visa. Some of my friends who have no visa, they can’t be sick. If they are sick they won’t tell the boss because they are scared of losing their jobs. Our undocumented friends cannot go to hospital during a pandemic. The fear is always there.

“Bad living conditions need to be put to a stop to, they have to change. We hope that an amnesty will be the stepping stone to break that fear and change these things.”

Horticulture worker Dewi says, “It’s crucial for undocumented workers to be acknowledged. They need the foundations and basic needs that a human being needs including legal rights to work to be able to support yourself so you can supply food, water and shelter for yourself. Let’s be honest, undocumented workers are not receiving any handouts from the Australian Government, but they do need support in the long run for the work they do in horticulture. As the whole world is facing this crisis, the amnesty for our farms workers is one solution.”

Horticulture worker Nancy says, “An amnesty for undocumented farms workers is really important because we need to have the documents so that we don’t have to keep paying subcontractors, we’d rather give money to the government for taxes and visas to improve our jobs. Contractors just keep lying to undocumented workers. An amnesty will break this situation and let people have better work conditions and pay.”

In addition, United Workers Union calls for the urgent action recommended in the report to be implemented by the Federal Government and the horticulture sector:

  • development of guidelines and framework for infection control in farms
  • developing trust and relationships between authorities, the health system and undocumented workers
  • funding healthcare costs and providing Covid-19 testing alongside targeted health promotion initiatives for culturally diverse and undocumented horticulture workers
  • providing support to the most vulnerable undocumented workers – elderly workers and those with pre-existing health conditions.