LOCAL vineyard contractors are warning of a backlash from an influx of cheap and illegal labourers working in the district.
Contractor Carl Borrello said many seasonal labourers were leaving the district, forced out by contract rates well below minimum wage requirements.
The situation is giving the region a bad name, and next season it will be difficult to attract sufficient numbers to get vineyard pruning done, he says.
“Number one, it’s illegal – and number two it’s immoral,” Mr Borrello said.
Greedy contractors and vineyard managers exploiting cheap labour reserves are not seeing the bigger picture, according to Mr Borrello.
“It’s expensive to live in Margaret River, we had so many people at the beginning of the pruning season, but the supply has dried up,” he said.
And as word spreads among agricultural labourers and the backpacking fraternity the situation is likely to worsen.
Meanwhile, another person operating a legitimate business has told the Augusta-Margaret River Mail illegal workers are rife in the district’s vineyards.
For fear of reprisals he did not want his name published, but said he knows of non-compliant teams operating on a single ABN, avoiding taxes and superannuation payments.
“The piece rates go to the team manager, who distributes it,” he said.
The practice of under-cutting is forcing legitimate contractors out of business.
“Vineyard managers are getting vines pruned cheaper then we can do it, and many are prepared to take the risk,” he said.
“We are quoting as cheaply as possible to remain competitive; we are all trying to stay in business.”
He said about 30 Indian labourers working in the district were employed through a dodgy education scam exposed by ABC television last month.
An Indian journalist, working undercover on the Four Corners program, was attacked after investigating alleged corruption by immigration agents.
Known as the Indian labour scam, students pay top dollar to enrol with education providers in the eastern states, and enter Australia on student visas.
The students have been brought into the Margaret River district by an Adelaide-based contractor to provide cheap labour in vineyards.
Our informant claims they often earn less than $10 an hour, but the real payoff comes with the chance to obtain permanent residency in Australia in return for 900 hours of “meaningful work.”
The college provides a supervisor, and the students are domiciled together and transported by bus to the vineyards they work in.
And, he says, the illegal workers can be out of a vineyard in minutes if they suspect the authorities are closing in.
The Federal Government has promised to crack down on the migration agent industry, and those who employ illegal workers.
A recent compliance operation by Department of Immigration and Citizenship officers nabbed 22 foreign farm labourers working in intravention of their visas.
“As it is likely that many of the workers were engaged by labour hire organisers, farm owners will be contacted to make them aware of their responsibilities for ensuring that they are engaging lawful workers,” a DIAC spokesman said.
He said the immigration compliance operation serves as a warning to people and employers that breaches of immigration law will not be tolerated.
“This operation demonstrates that if people work illegally or if people employ illegal workers, they will be caught.”
He said employers were obligated to check with the department to ensure the people they hire have the right work legally in Australia.
“Employers can face severe penalties for hiring people who do not have work rights and the department will be seeking information on any involvement of organisers behind this illegal employment,” the spokesman said.
Employers convicted under Commonwealth legislation face fines of up to $13,200 and two years’ imprisonment while companies face fines of up to $66,000 per illegal worker.
Employers can access the Visa Entitlement Verification Online service to check relevant identification details of prospective employees with their consent to quickly confirm that they are eligible to work in Australia.
* People with information about illegal workers or overstayers can call the Immigration Dob-In Line on 1800 009 623.