Australian horticultural sector groups have called on authorities to crack down on “rogue” labor hire firms, following a report on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) ‘Four Corners’ program that revealed instances of slave-like conditions for migrant workers on farms.
Produce Marketing Association (PMA) Australia-New Zealand CEO Michael Worthington said a concerted crackdown was needed to stamp out the problem, which he claimed was not representative of the industry.
“The vast majority of fresh produce companies do the right thing with their employment practices and they are frustrated by companies in the supply chain that blatantly break the law and take advantage of migrant workers,” Worthington said in a release.
“These rogue labour hire companies need to be driven out of the industry as soon as possible.
“The fresh produce industry depends on backpackers and migrant labour and there will always be a place for labour hire firms but only ones that abide by the law and do not take advantage of young workers, many of whom do not have a good grasp of English or the laws of this country.”
Worthington highlighted Australian growers produced some of the best quality fresh produce for domestic and overseas consumers, and it was not fair to blame retailers or producers for the wrongdoing of a minority of businesses.
“The retailers and producers are not the ones benefitting from under-payment of workers, it is the shonky labour hire firms who are skimming the wages,” Worthington said.
Queensland horticultural group Growcom described the program as shocking, emphasizing the labor hire companies (LHCs) mentioned in the exposé need to be “weeded out of the industry and prosecuted to the full extent of the law”.
In a release, Growcom commercial services manager Donna Mogg said the group welcomed increased compliance activity from regulators, with stronger systems in place to stop those who illegally exploit farmworkers.
“The growers we work with would have been shocked by last night’s program. The deliberate exploitation of backpackers and other seasonal workers in the horticulture industry is totally unacceptable to most growers,” Mogg said.
“The majority of growers understand very well that working holiday makers are the valuable heart of the industry’s labour force and without them much of their produce would stay in the ground. Most growers treat their workers fairly and ethically, whether they are Australian or on working holidays, and they receive a fair pay for a fair day’s work.”
She said her organization had worked diligently with the Fair Work Ombudsman in past years to educate growers about their obligations when planning to work with LHCs.
“For some growers working on the slimmest of margins and with limited influence over the prices they get for their produce from wholesalers and retailers, it may be tempting to work with an operator who says they can provide a workforce for less than a grower would expect to pay,” she said.
“However, Growcom has emphasised to growers that legally these operators cannot undercut wages and superannuation, and growers are seriously at risk if they choose to deal with them.
“Reports of LHCs using fraudulent business identities are concerning. These dodgy operators appear to be highly organised and can appear and disappear in a region overnight, changing business names as they go.”
She said that while government, industry bodies and businesses had identified these issues as a major concern, efforts to stamp out such practices had a limited effect and required a stronger response from authorities.
“The federal Department of Employment recently tightened up the rules for LHCs receiving ‘approved employer’ status for the purposes of engaging in the Seasonal Worker Program – they now must have been in operation for at least five years before they can apply to become an approved employer under the scheme and access those workers,” Mogg said.
“This will at least restrict access to this program to businesses with a legitimate history and record. It is hard to understand why this wasn’t the case right from the beginning.
“We have urged growers not to engage with contractors who are not willing to provide evidence of their bona fides and to only enter into arrangements using written agreements. The regulations now require that growers must obtain the full name of the business and conduct an ASIC search to ensure the operators are who they say they are at the very least.”
Australian Horticultural Exporters Association (AHEA) executive director Michelle Christoe said the practices highlighted in the show were certainly not condoned by the majority of the industry or AHEA members.
“his issue has come about as there is a need for low skilled workers in rural regions and industry fails to attract the average Australian,” Christoe said in a release.
“The fresh produce industry is struggling to be competitively priced domestically and internationally with Australia’s high labour rates. Our youth do not want to work the fields and migrant workers are happy for the employment.
“There is an upcoming Senate inquiry on temporary labour migration which will review the ‘backdoor’ to low skilled work that is at present provided by the international students and working-holiday-maker schemes.”
She said the problem with this ‘backdoor’ approach was that these visa holders were often highly susceptible to exploitation by unscrupulous employers because of their vulnerable labor market status.
“We need an official entry scheme for low skilled workers to flush out these unscrupulous employers.”
Ausveg deputy CEO Andrew White also took a strong stance against the types of practices shown by the ABC.
“AUSVEG fully condemns the distressing and exploitative practices employed by dodgy labour hire companies against seasonal workers that were detailed in a recent Four Corners investigation,” White said.
“Reports regarding the behaviour of some dodgy labour hire operators are very concerning, given the vital roles seasonal and temporary workers play in ensuring Australian growing operations can continue producing food for Australia.
“AUSVEG has consistently campaigned for tough clampdowns on dodgy labour hire operators that exploit workers, and acknowledges efforts by the authorities to step up enforcement. We believe further clampdowns are needed, including consideration of options for long term solutions such as accreditation and compliance.”