Australia: Labor contractor fined for "appalling treatment" of farmworkers

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Australia: Labor contractor fined for

The Federal Circuit Court in Brisbane has fined a labor-hire company and its director AUD$227,300 (US$174,385) for its exploitation of 22 seasonal workers from Vanuatu in mid-2014. 

Emmanuel Bani. Photo: LinkedIn

The fines issued against Maroochy Sunshine Pty Ltd (AUD$186,000) and its sole director Emmanuel Bani (AUD$41,300) are the result of legal action from the Fair Work Ombudsman, which uncovered serious exploitation of the laborers brought to the country under the Seasonal Worker Programme.

In his judgment, Judge Michael Jarrett described Bani's "appalling treatment" of the workers as having deprived them of the appropriate basic living standards expected in Australia and causing a "profound impact" upon them and their families.

Bani attracted the workers to Australia with promises of weekly wages of more than AUD$500, but even after requiring them to pay for their own visas, airfares and medical checks, 13 of the 22 workers received no wages while in Australia, according to Judge Jarrett.

The others were given individual cash payments of between AUD$50-$300.

The judge determined the workers were underpaid AUD77,649 over just seven weeks when they were employed to pick fruit and vegetables in Queensland's Lockyer Valley, Sunshine Coast and Bundaberg areas.

"The offending conduct was clearly designed to exploit this group of vulnerable workers,” Judge Jarrett said.

Acting Fair Work Ombudsman Michael Campbell described the experience endured by the workers as "particularly harrowing".

"One of the workers gave evidence that working for Bani’s company was like “slavery times” and that he had “never before experienced working a full day without even a cup of tea and only being fed tomatoes”.

"Workers were sometimes forced to work entire days harvesting produce without any food or drink and for no pay.

"In addition, the workers spent much of their time in remote and isolated transient accommodation, sometimes sleeping in a bus on the side of the road or on chairs in a bedroom owned by a friend of Bani."

The Court heard Bani would get angry and scream if workers asked him about their pay, sometimes threatening to call police and have the workers thrown in jail.

The Court held that Bani, in addition to underpaying the men, also underpaid annual leave entitlements and breached pay-slip and frequency-of-pay laws, and knowingly failed to comply with a Notice to Produce. 

A photo of migrant workers from Bani's Facebook page

The Court has also ordered Maroochy Sunshine to back-pay the workers their outstanding entitlements of $77,649. In the event that the company does not make the back-payment, the Court has ordered that the penalty imposed on Bani go towards partially rectifying the underpayment of the workers.

The Seasonal Worker Programme helps to contribute to the economic development of participating countries, while also offering approved Australian employers in the horticulture industry the ability to employ workers from selected Pacific Island countries and Timor-Leste when they cannot find enough local labour to satisfy seasonal demand.

"Seasonal workers have the same rights at work as other employees in Australia – they are covered by the minimum wage and condition entitlements under the Fair Work Act," Campbell said.

"Using vulnerabilities to exploit workers is completely unacceptable.

"Those employers in the labour-hire and horticulture industries who source migrant workers for seasonal work need to understand that compliance with workplace laws is not optional and that underpaying workers will result in hefty penalties."


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