About now, thousands of young Australian school-leavers should be going on a gap year. Instead, they are stuck at home with nowhere to go.
So why aren't they all heading off to Young or Swan Hill and picking cherries?
Short-term, well-paid work, far away from nagging parents. Sounds perfect.
Not so fast. Even the folks at the National Farmers' Federation recognise there are real problems with fruit picking. Ben Rogers, the NFF's general manager for workplace relations and legal affairs, concedes the industry has a bad reputation. But he starts by saying the reason young Australian workers don't want to work in fruit picking, even in the short term, is because farm work is undervalued. That's true all over the world. He also says that the non-suit-wearing, no-university-education-needed nature of the job puts people off.
It's hard physical labour. Workers are exposed to weather. And it is remote, although I'd argue remoteness would be a benefit to many young people. Take your mates and you are 1000 miles away from worry. Your parents' worry, that is.
But Rogers is open about the other major negative influence. Farm workers are exploited in a number of ways. Terrifying stories of sexual assault and sexual harassment and consistent stories of underpayment persist across the sector.
"As an industry we try to own the problem," he says.
Of course, fruit pickers can go to the police if it is a criminal matter. But that's tough at the best of times - sexual assault is underreported even in urban areas. Imagine what it is like to try to report when the only place you can shelter is the place where the assault took place. But if it is not a criminal matter, even the most confident young person might struggle to get what is rightfully theirs. Big employer, young inexperienced employee.
The scale of wage theft the [fruit picking] industry is engaged in is huge.Centre for Future Work senior economist Alison Pennington
Alison Pennington, senior economist at the Centre for Future Work, reveals the big secrets from the orchards. She says the reason young Australians don't want to go fruit picking is because of pay and conditions. She also says the agriculture industry would prefer employees who don't talk back and who might not have the same grasp of employment rights as the average Australian. It is one of the reasons agriculture has favoured backpackers and international students.
She doubts Big Agriculture is even looking at the applications of Austrailan citizens, who are, she says, "more likely to understand the minimum wage structure and have a better understanding of rights and conditions under Australian law".
"The scale of wage theft the industry is engaged in is huge," she says.
The federal government is trying to make fruit picking and other farm work more appealing through a scheme introduced this month offering up to $6000 to workers to cover relocation costs such as accommodation and travel. It is designed to help farmers deal with a massive worker shortage. The money is available for work from NSW to Western Australia, from the Northern Territory to Tasmania; and some states and territories have added their own incentive schemes, including WA's Work and Wander Out Yonder, criticised at its launch for making farm work look like a walk in the park.
While farmers might like employing backpackers and international students during university breaks, we now have the COVID-19 problem. There are usually 160,000 people in those categories in Australia at any one time, but right now there are just 70,000. And most of those are in the city.
National Farmers' Federation chief executive Tony Mahar was quoted as saying earlier this year: "Farmers require people who are reliable, enthusiastic and energetic; if you tick these boxes, you'll very likely have what it takes to be a valued member of a farm's workforce."
Thing is, it is hard to be reliable, enthusiastic and energetic about your work if you feel you are being ripped off.
So, a couple of ideas. Pennington reminds me that there are plenty of remote work incentive schemes which are a helluva lot more generous than the $6000 promised by the federal government - for instance, those granted to teachers, doctors and other health workers. So that's one way of supporting workers. She advises against any employer-mandated accommodation, because it is likely to diminish other pay and conditions.
The other way is to join a union. That's the simplest form of protection. There are two which cover farm work, the Australian Workers' Union and the United Workers Union.
AWU national secretary Daniel Walton confirms Pennington's view that farmers will often choose international workers because they are easier to exploit. And he says the industry is notorious for underpayment and "dodgy labour practices".
But there are ways to gauge whether your prospective employer is ripping you off. Cash in hand, partial payments or late payments are all features of employers breaching employment law. There are more: no contract of employment, no payslips, no superannuation payments. Walton says he has seen cases where the hourly rate changes from day to day, or where farm workers are paid by the cherry or by the punnet. If it is easy pickings, the price paid to workers for each punnet drops.
But here's the thing. We need our cherries and apricots, and young people need work. Take the six grand the government is promising you to pay for rent. That will pay for the accommodation at Young Tourist Park easily, you and your seven mates (safety in numbers); if you are 18, it is just under $20 an hour for a casual fruit picking gig, and just over $6 a week for union dues.
The rest is money for jam.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.