The Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) says that consumers are basing more of their purchasing decisions on ethical considerations, such as labour exploitation, so growers need to make sure they are doing the right thing to ensure their business is successful.

The organisation has been working on the Harvest Trail Inquiry since 2013, visiting farms across Australia to not only investigate any potential breaches, but to educate workers of their rights and employers of their responsibilities. It is due to report its findings later this year, but Jennifer Crook from the FWO told a Hort Connections seminar about some of their general findings.

“We saw backpackers being lured to regional centres by dodgy labour hire operators who were treating them poorly, sexually harassing them and ripping them off to the tune of hundreds and even thousands of dollars,” she said. “There was deliberate exploitation of young vulnerable backpackers, many from non-English speaking backgrounds with very little understanding of workplace laws. The work is often at a piece rate, so low that it is not possible to pick enough fruit of vegetables to make the hourly rate required under the law.

“We have seen a lot of cash in hand payments, off the books, records not kept and payslips not issued,” Ms Crook said. “We’ve seen labour hire contractors disappearing at the end of the season with hundreds of thousands of dollars of wages that have not been paid to sometimes hundreds of employees. They have moved offshore outside the Fair Work Ombudsman’s jurisdiction.”

As a regulator, the FWO is reminding growers that they are ultimately responsible for ensuring people working on their farms, directly or indirectly, are receiving the correct entitlements. Growers can also be held accountable as an accessory if they knowingly enter into substandard and illegal agreements with “unscrupulous providers”, so doing research is important.

“Engaging labour hire through a third party, of course is legal, and we don’t say not to do it,” Ms Crook said. “What we say is do your due diligence. Don’t accept the offers of the dodgy labour hirers who turn up at your farm offering to supply labour for less than the minimum hourly rate. If the price of a proposed contract seems too good to be true – it probably is. Know the current rate of pay. Check the contractor’s bona fides, like who else have they worked for and ring references. Check whether the bank name matches the ABN Name, as we have seen evidence of corporate identity theft. Ask contractors who are offering business how they pay their employees, cash or bank transfer – these days cash is not the way to go. Most importantly have a written contract. And check the worker’s bona fides, to ensure they have work rights.”

Dr Joanna Howe from the University of Adelaide has been looking at what are the labour supply challenges in horticulture industry. Preliminary work began in 2015, and was the first attempt of national survey of growers that was not done by industry.

A survey in 2016 received 342 responses from growers, with 70 per cent small businesses, 28 per cent medium and the remaining two per cent large businesses, focusing on the low-skilled workforce. Dr Howe says an industry finding was that a significant proportion of the industry had annual labour needs, not the perceived seasonal basis that dictates current pathways, with 66 per cent employed workers for more than seven months of the year.

“If agriculture is generally the industry of the future for Australia, and is one of the key areas for growth, it does seem somewhat ludicrous to have a visa package that doesn’t provide an annualised workforce,” Dr Howe said. “Asking growers whether they find it difficult to access workers is not going to prove labour shortage. But submissions for employers are valuable part of working out what occupations should be on the skilled occupation list for the new 457, the TSS visa.”

Another key finding from the survey was that 80 per cent of employers were using local workers, but at the same time, the industry would be crippled if there was not temporary migrants, with 78 per cent of growers relying on visa holders. While 40 per cent admitted to not being able to access the workers needed and from that only 25 per cent of those respondents said they increased wages, which Dr Howe says shows just how tight the profit margins are and it is difficult for growers to do this. 63 per cent of the growers who could not access workers left them unpicked, and 75 per cent asked their existing workers to work harder. –