Are we willing (and able) to pay for fair food

This week, ABC’s Four Corners uncovered the slave labour embedded in our food system. Asian migrant workers with legal visas are subjected to horrific conditions that defy the wholesome image most Australians like to believe represents our agricultural heritage.

Four Corners spoke to workers from Korea and Taiwan who were forced to work unreasonably long hours, live and work in horrible conditions, had pay withheld by labour-hire agents, were denied bathroom breaks, and were even sexually abused. And the mistreatment of workers isn’t limited to a handful of unscrupulous producers — union officials, politicians, even farmers agree slave labour is rife here in Australia.

Implicated in the scandal are most of Australia’s largest food suppliers, including Coles, Woolworths and Aldi supermarkets plus fast-food outlets KFC and Red Rooster. A representative from National Union of Workers, SA, was able to rattle off the known unfair work practices of the suppliers listed on every item the journalist picked up in the supermarket.

If you haven’t seen the program, catch it here (you’ll never look at a pot of KFC coleslaw the same again).

So who’s responsible for the treatment of workers?

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February’s frozen berry contamination scandal made it clear that Australians want to buy Australian produce; it also reminded us that homegrown food is expensive. And, as Professor Bill Bellotti points out in The Conversation, it’s hard to argue against lower food prices when the cost of food has increased 34% over the past decade.

The huge part of this cost is labour, and with increasing downward pressure on food prices and upward pressure on wages, farmers admitted to Four Corners they are willing to turn a blind eye to the finer details of labour recruitment.

Many organic and smaller farms in Australia rely on free labour, which comes from agriculture students, people wanting to learn more about sustainable farming practices, or travellers under the Willing Workers on Organic Farms scheme who agree to work for free in return for food, board and the experience. But large-scale producers supplying the ever-hungry supermarkets can’t afford to rely on the goodwill of volunteers; not when there are quotas to be met.

So who is responsible for ensuring all workers are paid and treated fairly? Is it the farmers? The suppliers? The supermarkets? Or does it come down to us, the consumers?

Professor Bellotti says we have a role to play: “Part of the long-term solution lies in more food consumers becoming food literate and empowered to exercise their influence as consumers. Ultimately it is you, the consumer, that drives modern food supply chains.”

When it comes to choosing ethical food, the only guarantees available are Organic and Fair Trade certification. Another option is to source meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables directly from farmers via farmers markets where you can ask questions and get answers direct from the producer, or “consumer supported agriculture” schemes such as Food Connect. However these options tend to be more expensive and less convenient than shopping at the supermarket.

Are you willing to pay more for food if it means the person who picked or packed it was treated fairly? And can you afford to pay the price if it means no slave labour in Australia?