UPDATED 1.30PM: THE agriculture industry has responded strongly to the exposure of rogue operators who willfully ignore Australian laws and take advantage of vulnerable migrant workers.
Last night’s ABC Four Corners story highlighted the need to do more to stamp out what has been described as a 'black market' in farm labour.
Brent Finlay, president of the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF), said that the mistreatment of workers has no place on Australian farms.
“Migrant workers are essential to the agriculture sector. Without them, there would be a chronic labour shortage at peak harvest times of the year,” he said.
“All employees have the right to feel safe and to be treated fairly at work – wherever they are – on the farm, in the packing shed, in the warehouse or at the shop.
“While most employers do the right thing, not all do. This puts the reputation of the whole farming community at risk.
“Individuals who act outside the law drag the rest of the industry down. There are strong laws in place to prevent this kind of activity, and we need to make sure they are effective on the ground.”
The NFF is working to lift employment standards in the sector through the development of a best practice scheme for agricultural employment.
“All farmers have a responsibility to make good choices about their employment practices and the contractors they use. And it’s not just farmers, this is a whole of supply chain issue,” Mr Finlay said.
“Our scheme will establish a framework for good farm practice in Australia. Working closely with government and other stakeholders, the aim is to lift compliance across the sector as a whole.
“We want everyone who works on an Australian farm to walk away with a positive experience,” Mr Finlay said.
VFF slams exploiters
Victoria's peak farmer lobby group has condemned unscrupulous labour-hire contractors’ exploitation of migrant workers.
“We won’t accept the exploitation of any worker,” Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) president Peter Tuohey said.
“It’s the very reason the VFF’s workplace relations team has been running forums for the past two years educating farmers on their legal obligations to workers.
“We’ve been working extensively with government agencies such as the Fair Work Ombudsman, providing information sessions for growers on compliance with award conditions and migration laws, particularly those businesses that utilise labour hire services.
“The fact is the vast majority of farmers pay award or above award wages to their workers. And we won’t accept anybody doing the wrong thing.”
Mr Tuohey said Australian farmers were proud of their contribution to society, whether it was through the employment of rural workers or the food and fibre they delivered to retail shelves and export markets.
“The Victorian Government has pledged to regulate all labour-hire companies, a move supported by the VFF,” he said.
Under the Victorian Labor government’s policy, any labour-hire company seeking a license would need to demonstrate the capacity to comply with their payroll and superannuation obligations.
Supermarkets turning a blind eye
Mr Tuohey said everyone along the supply chain needed to meet their legal obligations to Australian workers. However, he said campaigns by major retailers to force down produce prices didn’t help.
“There’s no excuse, when it comes to paying workers what they deserve. But the push by major supermarkets to drive down prices hasn’t helped.
“I think everyone needs to realise that when they see massive supermarket discounts on food, someone has to pay for it. And I can tell you most of the time it’s the farmer, not the supermarkets,” Mr Tuohey said.
In a strongly-worded opinion piece published in March, the federal Member for Hinkler, Queensland, Keith Pitt MP, said: "The supermarket giant demands to pay a lower price, but the farmer’s input costs continue to rise. Reliant on a large seasonal workforce, he turns to a contract labour hire company to hopefully save himself a few dollars".
"He suspects the contractor may be breaching immigration, taxation or industrial relations laws, but turns a blind eye for the sake of his family’s livelihood.
But Mr Pitt went further than the ag industry in his exploration of the causes of the migrant worker problem.
"The farmer’s use of a contractor in no way diminishes his responsibility to those workers. Under Australian law he is equally liable and, in most cases, he’s easier for the authorities to pursue.
"Not only has he put his business at risk, but his actions also disadvantage those Australian farmers and contractors who do the right thing."
Mr Pitt and Queensland Senator Barry O’Sullivan brought peak industry bodies and businesses together in 2014 to hear first-hand the difficulties workers, hostels, farmers and legitimate labour hire contractors have faced.
They subsequently took those concerns to Canberra.
Exploitation not condoned
One of the farm employers exposed as part of the Four Corners investigation - Covino Farms, Victoria - released a statement on Tuesday in which it said it takes the issue of worker welfare and safety "extremely seriously", saying that it does not condone underpayment or exploitation of workers.
"As a result of a lengthy investigation, jointly undertaken with the Fair Work Ombudsman’s Office in late March 2015, Covino terminated the last of its agreements with labour-hire businesses that utilize migrant workers. This took effect in April," the statement said.
"Covino has implemented a new model where it now takes full responsibility for payment of workers directly, rather than through a labour-hire provider."
According to the company, this gives certainty that employees are paid according to national employment standards.
But Colvino farms disputed claims it subjected workers to extended shifts, adding that, "in rare circumstances where breaches of this condition have happened, appropriate action has been taken".
It stated police found no evidence to substantiate allegations of abuse of employees, and welcomed the proposed Victorian Government inquiry into the practices of labour-hire businesses.