Exploring migrants’ knowledge and skill in seasonal farm work: more than labouring bodies

  • Natascha KlockerEmail author
  • Olivia Dun
  • Lesley Head
  • Ananth Gopal


Migrant farmworkers dominate the horticultural workforce in many parts of the Minority (developed) World. The ‘manual’ work that they do—picking and packing fruits and vegetables, and pruning vines and trees—is widely designated unskilled. In policy, media, academic, activist and everyday discourses, hired farm work is framed as something anybody can do. We interrogate this notion with empirical evidence from the Sunraysia horticultural region of Australia. The region’s grape and almond farms depend heavily on migrant workers. By-and-large, the farmers and farmworkers we spoke to pushed back against the unskilled tag. They asserted that farmworkers acquire knowledge and skills over time and that experienced farmworkers are valuable—their value being brought into sharp relief against accounts of inexperienced farmworkers’ errors. Our interviewees provided rich insights into farmworkers’ engagements with crops and the intricacies of picking and pruning well. Far from being bereft of knowledge and skills, they recognised that experienced farmworkers bring benefits. They improve productivity, product quality and ultimately profits. This is especially so when open communication channels exist across the farm hierarchy, when experienced farmworkers’ insights are taken seriously by their employers. Our research is informed by organisational studies literature and scholarship on craft/making. Like factory floor workers and artisans, experienced farmworkers bring accumulated knowledge and skills to their work, gained through repeat performance. They reflect on and adjust their activities in dialogue with their materials and the environment. Experienced farmworkers demonstrate care, dexterity and judgement. They are not unskilled, and they are more than labouring bodies.


Horticulture Skill Seasonal farm work Migrant farmworkers 



Australian Bureau of Statistics


Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade


National Farmers’ Federation


Papua New Guinea


Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme


Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program


Seasonal Worker Programme


Temporary Migrant Worker Programmes


United Kingdom


United States of America


Working Holiday Maker



The research reported on in this article was funded by an Australian Research Council Grant (DP140101165). The authors thank our numerous research participants in the Sunraysia region, our bilingual co-researchers, and the following organisations and groups for their involvement in this project: Robinvale Network House; Tree Minders, Robinvale; Sunraysia Mallee Ethnic Communities Council; Mildura Twitezimbere Burundian Community Association; Hazara Community Association Mildura; and Food Next Door Co-operative. We gratefully acknowledge Tess Spaven, Paul Mbenna and Ikerne Aguirre Bielschowsky for providing research assistance.


  1. ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics). 2017. 2016 Census QuickStats: Robinvale (Statistical Area Level 2). ABS: Canberra. Accessed 19 April 2019.
  2. Agriculture Victoria. 2017. Protection guidelines for Australian table grape varieties. Accessed 24 June 2019.
  3. Amin, A., and P. Cohendet. 2000. Organisational learning and governance through embedded practices. Journal of Management and Governance 4: 93–116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Basok, T. 2002. Tortillas and Tomatoes: Transmigrant Mexican harvesters in Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Bedford, R., C. Bedford, J. Wall, and M. Young. 2017. Managed temporary labour migration of Pacific Islanders to Australia and New Zealand in the early Twenty-first Century. Australian Geographer 48 (1): 37–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Binford, L. 2009. From fields of power to fields of sweat: The dual process of constructing temporary migrant labour in Mexico and Canada. Third World Quarterly 30 (3): 503–517.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Brahinsky, R., J. Sasser, and L. Minkoff-Zern. 2014. Race, space, and nature: An introduction and critique. Antipode 46 (5): 1135–1152.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Brice, J. 2014. Attending to grape vines: Perceptual practices, planty agencies and multiple temporalities in Australia viticulture. Social & Cultural Geography 15 (8): 942–965.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Brown, J.S., and P. Duguid. 1991. Organizational learning and communities-of-practice: Toward a unified view of working, learning and innovation. Organization Science 2 (1): 40–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cabannes, Y., and I. Raposo. 2013. Peri-urban agriculture, social inclusion of migrant population and Right to the City. City 17 (2): 235–250.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Carr, C., and C. Gibson. 2016. Geographies of making: Rethinking materials and skills for volatile futures. Progress in Human Geography 40 (3): 297–315.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Clemens, M., Ç. Özden, and H. Rapoport. 2014. Migration and development research is moving far beyond remittances. World Development 64 (December): 121–124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Collins, J., B. Krivokapic-Skoko and D. Monani. 2016. New immigrants improving productivity in Australian agriculture. Report prepared for Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.Google Scholar
  14. Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business. 2019. ‘Frequently asked questions about the Seasonal Worker Programme’ Accessed 14 October 2019.
  15. Department of Jobs and Small Business 2018. Frequently asked questions about the seasonal worker programme. Accessed 24 June 2019.
  16. Docquier, F., and H. Rapoport. 2012. Globalization, brain drain, and development. Journal of Economic Literature 50 (3): 681–730.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Doward, J., and V. Baldassari. 2018. Red Alert: UK farmers warn of soft fruit shortage. The Guardian, 27 May, Accessed 24 June 2019.
  18. Dun, O., N. Klocker, and L. Head. 2018. Recognising knowledge transfers in ‘unskilled’ and ‘low-skilled’ international migration: insight from Pacific Island seasonal workers in rural Australia. Asia Pacific Viewpoint 59 (3): 276–292.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Faist, T. 2008. Migrants as transnational development agents: An inquiry into the newest round of the migration-development nexus. Population, Space and Place 14 (1): 21–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Fisher, T., and J. Botticello. 2018. Machine-made lace, the spaces of skilled practices and the paradoxes of contemporary craft production. Cultural Geographies 25 (1): 46–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Frost, W. 2002. Migrants and technological transfer: Chinese farming in Australia, 1850–1920. Australian Economic History Review 42 (2): 113–131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Gertler, M. 2003. Tacit knowledge and the economic geography of context, or The undefinable tacitness of being (there). Journal of Economic Geography 3: 75–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Government of Canada. 2018. Hire a temporary worker through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program—Overview. Accessed 24 June 2019.
  24. Guéry, F. and D. Deleule. 1972. The productive body. English edition: Barnard, P. and S. Shapiro. Abingdon: Zero Books.Google Scholar
  25. Hagan, J.M., R. Hernández-León, and J.L. Demonsant. 2015. Skills of the ‘Unskilled’. Work and mobility among Mexican migrants. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  26. Harrison, J. 2008. Lessons learned from pesticide drift: A call to bring production agriculture, farm labor, and social justice back into agrifood research and activism. Agriculture and Human Values 25: 163–167.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Haspel, T. 2017. Illegal immigrants help fuel U.S. farms. Does affordable produce depend on them?, Washington Post, 17 March, Accessed 24 June 2019.
  28. Head, L., J. Atchison, and A. Gates. 2012. Ingrained. A human bio-geography of wheat. Burlington: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  29. Hennebry, J., and K. Preibisch. 2012. A model for managed migration? Re-examining best practices in Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. International Migration. 50 (s1): e19–e40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hernández Romero, M.A. 2012. Nothing to learn? Labor learning in California’s farmwork. Anthropology of Work Review XXXIII (2): 73–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hernández, T. and S. Gabbard. 2018. Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) 2015–2016: A demographic and employment profile of United States Farmworkers. Research Report No. 13. Rockville: JBS International. Accessed 30 April 2019.
  32. Hitchings, R. 2012. People can talk about their practices. Area 44 (1): 61–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Holmes, S.M. 2013. Fresh fruit, broken bodies: Migrant farmworkers in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  34. Howe, J., A. Reilly, D. van den Broek, and C. Wright. 2018. Working Holiday Makers in Australian horticulture: Labour market effect, exploitation and avenues for reform. Griffith Law Review. 27 (1): 99–130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Howes, S. 2018. ‘Another bumper year for the Seasonal Worker Programme’, Accessed 14 October 2019.
  36. Imbruce, V. 2007. Bringing Southeast Asian to the Southeast United States: New forms of alternative agriculture in Homestead, Florida. Agriculture and Human Values 24: 41–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Immigration New Zealand. 2018. Recognised seasonal employer scheme. Accessed 24 June 2019.
  38. International Labor Office. 2016. Migrant workers in commercial agriculture. Accessed 24 June 2019.
  39. Ingold, T. 2000. The perception of the environment: Essays on Livelihood, dwelling and skill. London: Taylor & Francis.Google Scholar
  40. Ingold, T. 2006. Walking the plank: Meditations on the process of skill. In Defining technological literacy: Towards an epistemological framework, ed. J.R. Dalkers, 65–80. New York: Palgrave McMillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Jasper, C., L. Burton, I. Pittaway, and J. Gunders. 2018. Labour shortages, hours of paperwork and uncertainty lead farmers to push for a new ‘ag visa’, ABC News Online, October 9. Accessed 15 Oct 2019.
  42. Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. 2017. Adopting a modern slavery act in Australia, Official Committee Hansard, Mildura 30th October 2017.Google Scholar
  43. Kilpatrick, S. and H.I. Bound. 2005. Skilling a seasonal workforce: A way forward for rural regions. Adelaide: National Centre for Vocational Education and Research (NCVER). Accessed 26 April 2019.
  44. Lenard, P., and C. Straehle. 2012. Legislated inequality: temporary labour migration in Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.Google Scholar
  45. Levitt, P., and D. Lamba-Nieves. 2011. Social remittances revisited. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37 (1): 1–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Malfouris, L. 2004. The cognitive basis of material engagement: where brain. In body and culture conflate, ed. E. DeMarrais, C. Godsen, and C. Renfrew, 53–62. Cambridge: University of Cambridge.Google Scholar
  47. Marchand, T. 2008. Muscles, morals and mind: craft apprenticeship and the formation of person. British Journal of Educational Studies 56 (3): 245–271.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Mildura Development Corporation. 2014. Regional overview Mildura-Wentworth. Accessed 28 March 2019.
  49. Minkoff-Zern, L. 2012. Pushing the boundaries of indigeneity and agricultural knowledge: Oaxacan immigrant gardening in California. Agriculture and Human Values 29: 381–392.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Munro, K. 2018. Who are Australia’s seasonal workers? SBS News June 18, Accessed 24 June 2019.
  51. National Farmers Federation. 2016. Submission to the Working Holiday Maker Visa Review. Accessed 24 June 2019.
  52. National Farmers Federation. 2019. ‘NFF says workers and farmers need Ag visa’. Accessed 15 October 2019.
  53. Newland, K. and A. Riester. 2018. Welcome to work? Legal migration pathways for low-skilled workers, MPI Policy Brief 3. Washington D.C.: Migration Policy Institute (MPI). Accessed 15 October 2019.
  54. Nishitani, M., and H. Lee. 2017. Invisible islanders: Precarious work and Pacific settlers in rural Australia. Pacific Studies 40 (3): 430–449.Google Scholar
  55. Orr, J. 1990. Talking about Machines: An ethnography of a modern job. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  56. Petrou, K., and J. Connell. 2018. ‘We don’t feel free at all’: Temporary ni-Vanuatu workers in the Riverina, Australia. Rural Society 27 (1): 66–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Porter, E. 2017. The danger from low-skilled immigrants: not having them. The New York Times, August 8, Accessed 24 June 2019.
  58. Preibisch, K. 2010. Pick-your-own labor: migrant workers and flexibility in Canadian agriculture. International Migration Review 44 (2): 404–441.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Preibisch, K., and L. Binford. 2006. Interrogating racialized global labour supply: An exploration of the racial/national replacement of foreign agricultural workers in Canada. The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 44 (1): 5–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Punch, S. 2000. Children’s strategies for creating playspaces: Negotiating independence in rural Bolivia. In Children’s Geographies: Playing, living, learning, ed. S. Holloway and G. Valentine, 48–62. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  61. Riege, A., and M. Zulpo. 2007. Knowledge transfer process cycle: Between factory floor and middle management. Australian Journal of Management 32 (2): 293–314.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Schon, D. 1984. The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  63. Scott, S. 2015. Making the case for Temporary Migrant Worker Programmes: evidence from the UK’s rural guestworker (‘SAWS’) scheme. Journal of Rural Studies 40: 1–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Sennett, R. 2008. The craftsman. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  65. Szulanski, G. 1996. Exploring internal stickiness: impediments to the transfer of best practice within the firm. Strategic Management Journal 17: 27–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Taylor, J., and S. Taylor-Lovell. 2014. Urban home gardens in the Global North: A mixed methods study of ethnic and migrant home gardens in Chicago. IL. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 30 (1): 22–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Underhill, E., and M. Rimmer. 2016. Layered vulnerability: temporary migrants in Australian horticulture. Journal of Industrial Relations 58 (5): 608–626.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 2019. H2-A Temporary Agricultural Workers. Accessed 14 November 2019.
  69. Valle, H., N. Millist, and D. Galeano. 2017. Labour force survey (Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences report to the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources). Canberra: ABARES.Google Scholar
  70. Weiler, A., G. Otero, and H. Wittman. 2016. Rock stars and bad apples: Moral economies of alternative food networks and precarious farm work regimes. Antipode 48 (4): 1140–1162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Williams, A., and V. Baláž. 2008. International migration and knowledge. Routledge Studies in Human Geography no. 25. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  72. Zhao, S., B. Binks, H. Kruger, C. Xia, and N. Stenekes. 2018. What difference does labour choice make to farm productivity and profitability in the Australian horticulture industry? A comparison between seasonal workers and working holiday makers. Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences research report prepared for the World Bank, Canberra.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Australian Centre for Culture, Environment, Society and Space, School of Geography and Sustainable CommunitiesUniversity of WollongongWollongongAustralia
  2. 2.School of Geography and Sustainable CommunitiesUniversity of WollongongWollongongAustralia
  3. 3.School of GeographyUniversity of MelbourneCarltonAustralia

Personalised recommendations