Fruit, vegetable worker supply chains "labyrinthine": FWO

Australlia's employment cop hampered by "labyrinthine" worker supply chains

Horticulture
COMPLEX CHAINS: A senior Fair Work Ombudsman staffer has told a Senate inquiry there are somtimes up to five tiers of subcontracting in labor supply agreements.

COMPLEX CHAINS: A senior Fair Work Ombudsman staffer has told a Senate inquiry there are somtimes up to five tiers of subcontracting in labor supply agreements.

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Fair Work Ombudsman frustrated by complex labor supply chains.

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A senior bureacrat with the Fair Work Ombudsman's office has told a Senate inquiry determining who is the original employer of many seasonal horticultural workers can be similar to negotiating a labyrinth.

FWO Compliance executive director Steve Ronson told the Senate Select Committee on Temporary Migration in the last 18 months the number of compliance notices issued, over failure to meet employment standards, had increased.

"I have been conducting investigations in this area for well over a decade," Mr Ronson said.

"They are notoriously tricky, they involve a range of players, particularly when you are investigating labour hire entities."

He said sometimes there were up to five tiers of subcontracting and described some labour hire supply chains as "labyrinthine.

"It's one of the reasons why it's a priority, to the FWO, and one of the reasons why we have spent the last two years working with unions, employer groups, supermarkets, labour hire representative agencies and the horticulture representative strategy group, as part of our strategy to build a culture of compliance in the horticulture sector.'

He said most workers knew which paddock they had worked in, and on what farm.

"But it is very common for the worker not to actually know who their employer was," he said.

"This is a sector where payslips can have an employing entity, one fortnight, and when you get the next fortnight's payslip there will be a different entity.

"This is where the complexity of who is the employer - often the worker will only know the employer by one name and it may not be that person's (real) name."

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Mr Ronson told the inquiry last financial year, 44 per cent of all cases carried out by the FWO, were on behalf of visa holders.

They recieved just under $3 million in underpayments.

A total of $123,46m, for 25,573 employees, was recovered last financial year, with 494 visa holders receiving $1.74m.

While visa holders represented seven pc of the workers, for which infringement notices were issued, they made up 16pc of the 98 cases.

"We are doing what we can to step up our game, and to put those employers, who engage in serious non-compliance involving visa holders, on notice that this is an offence we won't tolerate," Mr Ronson said.

FWO Policy and Communication deputy ombudsman Kristin Hannah told the inquiry the organisation would welcome further tools or resources, to help it do its job.

"We can always do more, with more," Ms Hannah said.

"We have been evolving our model, in response to the Migrant Worker Taskforce recommendations."

The Taskforce, headed up by former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission head Alan Fels, found up to half of Australia's foreign workers were being underpaid.

In March 2019, Mr Fels recommended the introduction of criminal sanctions, such as jail time and fines, against employers who exploited workers.

"We have amended our compliance policy to toughen up our enforcement tools and to issue more compliance notices, they are a very fast and effective tool to get money back into the hands of workers," Ms Hannah said.

FWO Engagement Branch executive director Louise Peters said the organisation had a number of tools, it could apply to employment breaches.

"We apply them as appropriate, for each individual situation," Ms Peters said.

"As an approach, education, enforcement and engagement work very well for visa holders, as a complete package.

"We do have a very strong enforcement response in regards to migrant workers."

But the Australian Workers' Union said the main issue keeping unemployed Australians from working on farms was rampant law breaking by employers.

"There a now a million Australians searching for work. We don't need exotic branded schemes to entice them into horticulture, we just need farms to obey the law," Mr Walton said.

"The reason Australians are not being employed on farms is because too many employers in the sector prefer to hire people they can easily underpay, exploit, and, in many cases, harass.

"We know this not a case of a few bad apples.

He said bad employers were rampant in the fruit and vegetable industry because they knew they have a virtual green light from government to ignore Australian employment laws.

"It's little wonder that Australians prefer to avoid an industry where Australian wages and conditions are routinely ignored.

"These bad employers in fruit and veg don't just make life hard for workers, they give themselves an unfair advantage over farmers who want to do the right thing.

"It's time the farmers who do the right thing started calling out the bad behaviour.

"Regional communities know who the law breakers are.

"We need farms to consistently pay legal wages and honour Australian conditions."

Mr Walton said if Australians were confident they could earn award rates picking fruit they would flock to vacancies.

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