An inquiry has found that more than half of Australian fruit and vegetable growers were non-compliant with the country’s Fair Work Act.
Almost 650 businesses, including labour hire companies, were investigated as part of the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) Harvest Trail inquiry, and over $1m of unpaid wages were recovered for 2,500 affected harvest workers.
Breaches of workplace laws, including underpayments of base pay rates, falsification of records, deliberate withholding of payslips and unauthorised deductions, were found at more than half of firms.
During the investigation, FWO took court action against eight employers, including four labour hire contractors for serious alleged breaches of the Fair Work Act, six of which have now been finalised and resulted in penalties of $500,000.
Over 130 infringement notices were issued throughout the inquiry, as well as 150 formal cautions and 13 compliance notices for breaches of workplace laws.
The inquiry also found that almost 70% of harvest trail businesses employed those on working holiday visas, leaving migrant workers open to exploitation.
Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said: “Growers rely heavily on migrant workers to pick, pack and process crops, and these workers can be particularly vulnerable. Migrant workers may not seek help because of language and cultural barriers, concerns about visa status, or because they are unaware of their workplace rights.”
She continued: “All workers in Australia have the same rights and protections at work, regardless of citizenship or visa status. During this inquiry, we assisted hundreds of migrant workers to recover their pay, and any workers with concerns should contact us.”
A stakeholder reference group will be established by the FWO in order to consider the next steps and implement recommendations outlined in the inquiry report to promote compliance within the industry.
The inquiry comes as leading fresh produce grower Costa Group pledges to put sustainable farming at the front and centre of its business, focusing on the welfare of workers as well as the environmental impact of commercial farming.
The company has established 10 sustainable commercial farming principles to achieve their goals in each area. Costa CEO, Harry Debney confirmed: “These principles specifically focus on water use and security, climate change, nutritional inputs, biodiversity, production yield; productivity and efficiency, workforce, community; and health and wellbeing.”
The company has already begun to invest in technology to improve its environmental impact, upgrading its irrigation drain water capture system in its tomato glasshouses, which could save up to 22.5m litres of water each year. They have also invested in renewable energy and have installed 5,000 solar panels at their Monarto mushroom facility.
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