A labour hire company has been forced to pay more than $50,000 to a group of labourers from Vanuatu who were underpaid while working on a tomato farm in northern Victoria.
They had spent the four months picking tomatoes for MCG Fresh Produce, a tomato farm near Shepparton, in northern Victoria.
But, Fair Work inspectors found the company paid some workers a group piecework rate, based around the number of tomatoes picked by the group, despite Agri Labour’s enterprise agreement and piecework agreements indicating workers should be paid based on their individual productivity.
Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker hoped a court-enforceable undertaking would force other horticulture employers to ensure they upheld piecework agreements.
“Improving compliance across the horticulture industry is a priority for the Fair Work Ombudsman after our Harvest Trail Inquiry found widespread breaches of the Fair Work Act,” Ms Parker said.
“Agri Labour has committed to extensive measures aimed at sustained workplace compliance, and we will scrutinise their work practices for the next two years.”
Company admits to wrongdoing
Agri Labour admitted that no records were made or kept of the actual hours work by the seasonal workers over the four-month period.
Investigators found that the company used an individual piecework rate system for picking cherry tomatoes, but it used a group piecework rate system when employees were asked to pick roma tomatoes.
Agri Labour admitted that the piecework agreements for seasonal workers picking roma tomatoes did not state that the workers were to work as a team, or that they were only to be paid an equal percentage of the piecework rate.
In response to the allegations, managing director Casey Brown said the company had invested its own money and time to top up workers’ pay rates, after it was discovered there were issues around pick results and take-home wages.
He said the company acted “long before” the Fair Work Ombudsman got involved.
“Since then we’ve been working with the Ombudsman to ensure that our workers receive their full entitlements and we are happy to make this extra top up payment to achieve that goal,” Mr Brown said.
The company also admitted it deducted money for the workers’ wages to cover wet weather gear that wasn’t covered by the Fair Work Act.
Under the court-enforceable undertaking, Agri Labour has been forced to pay pieceworkers based on individual productivity, keep a record of hours worked for each worker, employ an external professional to complete two audits of the pay and conditions of employees, and commission workplace relations training for people who work in the areas of human resources, recruitment, on-site management and payroll functions.
The company has also been asked to pay an additional $15,000 to the Commonwealth Government Consolidated Revenue Fund.
Exploitation continues within Labour Hire industry
Workplace relations lawyer Charles Power was representing several workers who had taken Federal Court action against Agri Labour.
He said he was pleased to see the workers receive relief but did not believe the result achieved by the Fair Work Ombudsman achieved a long-term solution.
Mr Power told ABC Pacific Beat the amount repaid by the company did not correspond to the amount he believed the workers were owed.
“The average amount that the workers are going to receive is around $2,600, but our information, and the instructions we received from our clients, showed that the amount owed is between $7,000 and $10,000 each, and that’s before you look at the issue of unlawful deductions and unpaid superannuation,” Mr Power said.
Mr Power said the sector was marred by exploitation and said it would be “unfortunate” if Agri Labour re-joined the Seasonal Workers Program while legal proceedings continued to take place.
“There seems to be no commitment from the company to make sure that workers that they employ are treated appropriately, and until those assurances can be obtained, then I fear that the issues that have risen from these workers will continue,” he said.
Dodgy behaviour widespread
Tallygaroopna farmer Frank Carmichael said overseas workers being treated poorly by companies in Australia was still a significant issue for regional Victoria, particularly in the Goulburn Valley and Mildura.
Mr Carmichael acted as a mouthpiece between the Fair Work Ombudsman and a number of African migrants who were left $7,000 out of pocket, after completing work at a tomato farm near Shepparton in 2015.
The workers had spent a week picking tomatoes at a Toolamba farm, but a labour hire contractor, hired by the farm they worked on, allegedly failed to pay the group.
The case was investigated by the Fair Work Ombudsman and heard at the Victorian Inquiry into labour hire, but the workers never saw a dollar of the money they were owed.
Despite putting pressure on local Federal member Damian Drum, and the Ombudsman, Mr Carmichael said there were many loopholes within the system.
He said he still heard stories of workers not receiving pay, a year after the culmination of the inquiry.
The Victorian Government introduced new laws in July last year to address the exploitation of labour hire, by introducing a licensing scheme to regulate the industry.
“There are still issues around privacy laws, there’s issues around people taking on illegal work on farms — everyone is aware this is commonplace, but you still see cases popping up,” Mr Carmichael said.
“I believe the way to go is by beefing up and increasing the manpower of the Fair Work Ombudsman, and by changing a few laws.”