Australian fruit and vegetable growers have called on governments and the big supermarkets to do more to help address systemic problems within the horticultural workforce, following the release of a damning report from the Fair Work Ombudsman.
A detailed report from the Fair Work Ombudsman, five years in the making, found a whopping 56 per cent of the 8000 horticulture farms with employees had underpaid workers by a total of $1 million – a figure FWO says is a conservative estimate.
The Harvest Trail Inquiry extrapolated the figures in its report from 836 investigations, which involved 444 growers and 194 labour hire contractors across the country, and recovered $1m in wages for 2503 employees.
Ombudsman Sandra Parker said the inquiry highlighted “unacceptable practices of underpaying workers in one of Australia’s largest rural industries”.
She said language and cultural barriers can prevent many horticulture workers, 70 per cent of which are visa holder - mainly backpackers in the working holiday category, from seeking restitution for underpayment and she encouraged workers with concerns to contact her office.
Ausveg chairman Bill Bulmer, a farmer who grows leafy greens in East Gippsland, said the breaches of workplace laws detailed in the the report were unacceptable.
The investigation conducted 836 investigations, across 444 growers and 194 labour hire contractors.
It found 55.6pc did not comply with workplace laws. Of the 465 breaches:
- 236 were monetary, mainly related to underpayment of the hourly rate and not being paid for time worked
- 120 were non-monetary breaches, due to a failure to keep records and payslips
- 109 were both monetary and non-monetary breaches
- The average recovery per employee was $409. The smallest recovery was $21 and the largest recovery from one investigation was $125,053 for 15 employees
Mr Bulmer called on government and supermarkets, which make up more than half the market for horticulture produce, to work with farmers to stamp it out by providing farmers with sufficient workers, adequate farmgate returns, and a well-regulated labour hire scheme.
“We categorically condemn the mistreatment of farm workers in any form and this type of behaviour has no place in the horticulture industry,” Mr Bulmer said.
“Ausveg has long called for a national labour hire accreditation scheme that has adequate resources for investigation and enforcement to hold rogue operators in the labour hire industry to account and to clean up the sector.”
Mr Bulmer said farmers often find themselves caught between the prospect of missing a crucial harvest, which in horticulture can be a window of hours, and using questionable labour hire providers that may engage in poor workplace practices.
To reduce the burden on producers, which includes rising input costs such as electricity, Mr Bulmer said supermarkets should charge consumers more for produce and pay more back to farmers.
Ausveg is working with supermarkets on a workforce code of practice and the peak group wants retailers to buy only from accredited suppliers.
Rachel Mackenzie is chief advocate for Queensland’s peak horticulture group, Growcom.
She said the industry did not shy away from the fact the Ombudsman had identified a culture of poor workforce compliance.
Horticulture has hotspots of bad behaviour, usually centered around highly seasonal produce which relied on hard physical labour during harvest.
Many unskilled labouring jobs were filled by workers on “dodgy” visas - who are nominally restricted to 20 hours employment a week, Ms Mackenzie said.
“There are lots of intriguing ways to get around the restrictions,” she said.
“One grower had 65 workers walk off the job because he wouldn’t pay in cash, for example.
“We need to acknowledge that those people already working in horticulture show that our visa settings aren’t right.”
The often variable nature of horticulture work is a challenge for Australians with a family who cannot commit to working flexible hours, or those who lack transport or have a need for consistent work.
Growcom has long been a champion of treating workers fairly in the horticulture industry and continues to make significant steps in assisting growers to meet and demonstrate compliance with workplace legislation. https://t.co/V7txSsWEJZpic.twitter.com/jPF3y84pwv— Growcom Australia (@growcom) October 29, 2018
She echoed Mr Bulmer’s call for a national labour hire accreditation scheme to weed out unscrupulous labour hire companies who she said often hire undocumented workers who are “complicit in their own exploitation”.
Growcom is spearheading the Fair Farms scheme, an industry-led code of practice for workforce compliance with employment laws which recently attracted $1.5m in federal funding.
"The Fair Farms training and certification program is designed to effectively shut out the dodgy growers from the supply chain through an independent third-party audit mechanism supported by training," Ms Mackenzie said.
"The scheme, which has seen good support from the major retailers, is in its pilot phase and will be fully operational by early 2019.”