LEADING lettuce growers whose farms are under notice for using "gangmaster" labour contractors - who allegedly hire lowly paid illegal workers - have won a national agribusiness award sponsored by National Australia Bank and Monash University.
Wholesale vegetable market identities Frank and Joe Ruffo own Tripod Farmers, which grows baby leaf lettuce at Bacchus Marsh and at Boisdale in East Gippsland. Tripod won the NAB Agribusiness primary producer of the year excellence award last week.
The company's Boisdale farm is one of two big Gippsland lettuce growers being monitored by federal authorities following several raids on illegal workers in the area.
In the raids on rented houses near Tripod's farm on August 11, Department of Immigration officers detained 22 workers, of whom 18 were deported.
In other raids at Rosedale, Maffra and Sale on September 28, 19 more illegal workers were found - 10 Malaysians, five Indonesians and four Nepalese.
According to department and local sources, "illegals" detained in the August raids had been working at a large Boisdale vegetable farm.
Officers had issued 30 "unlawful worker" notices to local farms and labour contractors, a department spokesman said. Tripod is the only vegetable farm in the Boisdale district requiring large numbers of workers at that time of year.
Local horticultural workers and farmers said nine workers found in one Rosedale house had been working for a contractor on another big lettuce-growing property at Longford, near Sale.
The Age revealed on October 10 that an underground network of labour agents was procuring illegal workers from Asia and India to supply Australia's growing black market for cheap contract labour - not just in horticulture but in construction and the meat industry.
Labour contractors act as middlemen in a highly organised racket that ferries workers from rented "safe houses" - often derelict farm buildings - in fleets of vans. The Age witnessed five vans arriving at a Boisdale farm at 7am one day in September.
Under laws introduced in 2007, small fines were boosted to $13,000 or a maximum two years jail for individuals and $66,000 for companies. But grower organisations concede no Victorian producers have been prosecuted, a fact that angers Australian unions concerned at the undermining of wages and conditions.
Frank and Joe Ruffo are fourth-generation farmers and well known in Melbourne's wholesale fruit and vegetable market, where they worked before returning to farming to pioneer sophisticated but labour-intensive lettuce-growing methods in 1989.
There is no suggestion the Ruffos are personally or deliberately hiring illegal workers but it is clear their company employs contractors whose use of illegal workers is under investigation. The Ruffos did not return calls to The Age last week or yesterday.
A NAB spokeswoman said the bank had "limited information about the issues raised", that "the business in question" was not a NAB customer and that if the allegations were correct "they should be thoroughly investigated by the relevant authorities".
Monash University backed the awards program "in kind" but did not put any money into it.
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