The investigations, which looked into 444 growers of various fruit and vegetable crops as well as 194 labour hire contractors along Australia’s “Harvest Trail”, allegedly found “widespread non-compliance” with workplace laws, with around half breaching the rules in some capacity.
As a result, the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) issued 150 formal cautions to employers, as well as 132 infringement notices and 13 compliance notices, and entered into seven separate enforceable undertakings.
In addition, eight employers were taken to court after the FWO alleged “serious” breaches of the Fair Work Act. Six of those have since been finalised, resulting in more than $500,000 in penalties being metered out. Two matters remain before the court.
The biggest of those penalties was a $186,000 fine slapped on a Queensland labour hire company, whose director was personally fined an additional $41,300 after the Federal Circuit Court ruled they had underpaid 22 seasonal workers from Vanuatu to the tune of $77,649 in just a seven-week period.
In a statement on the findings, the FWO said that some of the businesses were randomly selected for investigation, while others were targeted based on tip-offs.
“The Fair Work Ombudsman visited hundreds of horticulture businesses and found over half did not comply with workplace laws. Our inquiry highlighted unacceptable practices of underpaying workers in one of Australia’s largest rural industries,” Ombudsman Sandra Parker said.
“Growers rely heavily on migrant workers to pick, pack and process crops, and these workers can be particularly vulnerable. Migrant workers may not seek help because of language and cultural barriers, concerns about visa status, or because they are unaware of their workplace rights.
“All workers in Australia have the same rights and protections at work, regardless of citizenship or visa status.”
Consumers may be used to promote compliance
Ms Parker said that “all options” are being considered for encouraging businesses to comply with workplace laws, and that her office has commissioned research into consumer spending behaviour around “fairly produced” fresh produce.
“Amongst consumers who were concerned about farm workers’ conditions, over 80 per cent said they would avoid buying produce if they knew workers had been underpaid or provided poor working conditions,” Ms Parker said.
“Many consumers said they were prepared to pay up to $0.50 per kilo extra for fairly produced fruit and vegetables.
“We are considering all options for driving change in the horticulture industry, including education, compliance, enforcement and raising awareness among consumers to help them make informed purchasing decisions.”
She added: “We are inviting industry representatives to join a reference group that will develop and deliver specific strategies to stop the unlawful underpayment of vulnerable workers in this sector.”