Work­ers get their money back

Shepparton News - Country News - - NEWS -

More than $1 mil­lion in lost wages has been re­cov­ered for 2500 work­ers af­ter a ma­jor in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­cov­ered wide­spread prob­lems on fruit and veg­etable farms.

The Fair Work Om­buds­man’s Har­vest Trail In­quiry com­pleted 836 in­ves­ti­ga­tions in the past five years, in­volv­ing 444 grow­ers and 194 labour hire con­trac­tors, with the ma­jor­ity picked at ran­dom.

More than half of the in­ves­ti­ga­tions found breaches of work­place laws in­clud­ing un­der­pay­ment and failed record keep­ing.

But the om­buds­man be­lieves the full ex­tent of worker un­der­pay­ments is sig­nif­i­cantly higher than the $1 022 698 clawed back for work­ers who fol­low fresh fruit, veg­eta­bles and wine grapes har­vests around Aus­tralia.

‘‘Our in­quiry high­lighted un­ac­cept­able prac­tices of un­der­pay­ing work­ers in one of Aus­tralia’s largest ru­ral in­dus­tries,’’ Fair Work Om­buds­man San­dra Parker said.

Grow­ers rely heav­ily on over­seas work­ers who com­monly do not have a good un­der­stand­ing of Aus­tralian work rights and en­ti­tle­ments, the re­port found.

‘‘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,’’ Ms Parker said.

The vast ma­jor­ity were on work­ing hol­i­day visas, with peo­ple on that cat­e­gory par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to ex­ploita­tion.

As well as un­der­pay­ments, the FWO found ex­am­ples of other ex­ploita­tion in­clud­ing sub­stan­dard ac­com­mo­da­tion, trans­port and ex­tra charges.

Dur­ing the in­quiry, the om­buds­man took court ac­tion against eight em­ploy­ers for se­ri­ous al­leged breaches of the Fair Work Act, with four ac­tions in­volv­ing labour hire con­trac­tors.

Six mat­ters have now been fi­nalised, re­sult­ing in more than $500 000 in penal­ties, and two re­main be­fore court.

The om­buds­man handed out 150 for­mal cau­tions, 132 in­fringe­ment no­tices, 13 com­pli­ance no­tices and seven en­force­able un­der­tak­ings and be­gan eight le­gal pro­ceed­ings.

De­spite ex­press­ing con­cern about the find­ings, the veg­etable in­dus­try is con­fi­dent ac­tions al­ready un­der­taken will re­move law-break­ing op­er­a­tors.

‘‘We cat­e­gor­i­cally con­demn the mis­treat­ment of farm work­ers in any form and this type of be­hav­iour has no place in the hor­ti­cul­ture in­dus­try,’’ AUSVEG chair and Vic­to­rian veg­etable grower Bill Bul­mer said.

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