EXPLOITED and vulnerable workers continue to be ripped off by unscrupulous contractors across Australia with lawmakers calling for farmers to take responsibility.
Speaking at Hort Connections 2018, assistant director in the Compliance and Enforcement Branch of the Fair Work Ombudsman, Jennifer Crook, said bad choices by employers could result in the ongoing mistreatment or exploitation of employees.
“[We see] damage to business brands and industry reputation and, in the most extreme cases, significant court penalties imposed on lawbreakers,” Ms Crook said.
“As a consumer, I now look at a punnet of strawberries in the supermarket very differently as I know what goes into getting those berries from the paddock in to my shopping basket.
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“That knowledge guides what brands I buy and, as a consumer, I’m not alone.”
Ms Crook said many consumers are now making choices based on how ethically their food is produced.
“The community and media has not been forgiving when underpaying of vulnerable workers is exposed.”
Launched in 2013, the National Harvest Trail Inquiry, was conducted by the Fair Work Ombudsman in response to continued complaints from both workers and employers.
“The horticulture sector is heavily reliant on visa workers – some of our most vulnerable, easily exploited workers,” she said.
“Visa workers represent almost 20 per cent of those who request our assistance, that’s almost one in five and they are involved in half of the matters we put into court last year.
As a regulator, we hold the growers responsible for ensuring that people working on their farms, whether directly employed or via a labour hire provider, are receiving the correct entitlements.
“The Harvest Trail Inquiry revealed some very disturbing practices by some dubious operators and, while I’m not saying everyone out there behaved this way, it was something we saw consistently across the country.”
Ms Crook said the Inquiry revealed ‘dodgy’ labour hire companies luring backpackers to regional centres with the promise of work only to be bullied and sexually harassed.
“[They were] ripping them off to the tune of hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars per person.”
Ms Crook said labour hire companies were deliberately exploiting young, vulnerable backpackers who often had little understanding of Australian workplace laws.
“When these people have complained to their employer or raised the issue with their provider, they have been bullied or told they will not get their bond back, nor have their visa extensions signed off,” she said.
“As a regulator, we hold the growers responsible for ensuring that people working on their farms, whether directly employed or via a labour hire provider, are receiving the correct entitlements.”