HORTICULTURE will be in the crosshairs of the Fair Work Ombudsman over the next 12 months.
The sector has been identified as a "strategic priority", along with the cleaning industry, fast food, restaurants and cafes.
Speaking at a Council of Small Business Organisations Australia (COSBOA) roundtable meeting in July, Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said the impacts of COVID-19 had raised concerns for workers.
"The horticulture sector, which has a track record of significant non-compliance, also remains a priority with its reliance on visa holders who may be exploited and complex labour supply chains," Ms Parker said.
"Horticulture itself is not a high employing industry, however the poor behaviour in this industry, documented in our Harvest Trail Report, the reluctance of vulnerable workers to seek our assistance, and the significance of the sector in terms of putting food on our plates, warrants the continued focus.
"The FWO continues to find high levels of non-compliance in the fast food, restaurants and café sector, with a significant number of requests for assistance from vulnerable workers in the industry."
Ms Parker said that investigating large corporate underpayments remained a priority for the regulator.
"We are investigating more than 80 corporate sector employers for underpayments of workers," she said.
"We recently commenced litigation against Woolworths, where we seek to recover backpayments we allege may be owed to about 19,000 employees.
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"We expect to take further high-level enforcement action against a range of large corporates this year, and urge them to prioritise compliance."
Ms Parker said the regulator recognised the crucial importance of small businesses to the nation's economic recovery from COVID-19, and would continue to prioritise assistance to these employers.
The Australian Fresh Produce Alliance (AFPA) says COVID-19 had accelerated long term structural changes in the horticulture workforce and driven a greater focus on a returning and productive workforce.
In a statement, the alliance said the ongoing development of the Seasonal Agriculture Worker Visa will continue to reduce reliance on backpackers and support the ongoing structural change in workforce composition.
AFPA chief executive officer Michael Rogers said the past 18 months had seen an acceleration away from backpackers and an increased reliance on returning Australians and Pacific workers due to international border restrictions.
"This focus on returning workers builds on the 10-year development of the Pacific programs, and will continue as the Government implements the Seasonal Agriculture Worker visa," Mr Rogers said.
"Piece rates are a fundamental part of providing a fair and effective safety net for workers in horticulture, and growers must apply piece rates fairly and reasonably.
"If the Fair Work Commission takes a view that the piece rate provisions ought to be varied, the AFPA has outlined potential changes to support the transparent and consistent application and use of piece rates."
In 2020-21, the Fair Work Ombudsman had more than 60,000 calls to its Small Business Helpline and over 160,000 views of its Small Business webpage and Small Business Showcase.
"Our resources are complemented by the Employer Advisory Service, which provides eligible small businesses with free, tailored, written advice about employee entitlements under the National Employment Standards and award provisions," Ms Parker said.
"We hope the new service will give small businesses increased confidence to understand and comply with their obligations under the Fair Work Act."
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