Six Fair Work Ombudsman inspectors will fly into Bundaberg today and make unannounced visits to local fruit and vegetable farms in response to complaints and concerns about non-compliance with federal workplace laws.
Farmers and labour-hire contractors will be asked to open their books, allowing inspectors to view records, with a particular emphasis on minimum pay rates, loadings and penalties. Record keeping and payslip obligations will also be monitored.
In addition to field visits, inspectors will run an information booth tomorrow (24 June) at the Federal Backpackers Hostel in Bundaberg.
Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James said key stakeholders have been enlisted to assist the Agency promote the need for compliance and a “level playing field” for all employers.
These include the Bundaberg Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, Growcom and Bundaberg and District Chamber of Commerce.
James says Bundaberg relies heavily on labour from working holiday makers, many of whom undertake seasonal harvest work to help qualify for a second-year visa.
“We have recently received information that suggests some of these workers may be being underpaid, so we intend to investigate and ensure that employers understand and are complying with their workplace obligations,” she said.
The first preference of Fair Work inspectors will be to work co-operatively with employers to assist them to correct any issues by agreement and put processes in place to ensure future compliance.
However, they will consider enforcement measures in cases of serious non-compliance, such as issuing Infringement Notices (on-the-spot fines) of up to $2550.
In the event of a matter being so serious it warrants legal action, penalties of up to $51,000 per breach are applicable to companies and $10,200 to individuals.
James said checking that employers are complying with their obligation to have written agreements in place for workers paid piece-work rates will also be a key focus of the program.
“This is a really important issue. In the absence of a piece-work agreement workers are required to be paid hourly rates of pay according to the Horticulture Award 2010,” she said.
Over the next few years the Fair Work Ombudsman will visit dozens of fruit and vegetable farms throughout Australia as part of its focus on the entitlements of seasonal harvest workers.
“We want to ensure employers understand and meet their workplace obligations and we are also seeking information about industry factors that influence compliance levels,” she said.
James says complaints to the Fair Work Ombudsman from fruit and vegetable pickers in the region have identified a number of common issues, including:
- Employees being unaware of who their legal employer is because they do not receive pay slips and are paid cash by a third party who may not be their employer,
- Employers underpaying the minimum hourly rate under the Horticulture Award 2010,
- Employers failing to keep time and wages records, particularly for casual employees,
- Employers failing to give new employees a copy of the Fair Work Information statement, and
- Employers making unlawful deductions to employees’ wages.
A decision to pro-actively monitor workplace compliance in Bundaberg follows auditing in Caboolture, South-East Queensland, last year which found that more than 150 seasonal workers had been short-changed about $133,000.
The Fair Work Ombudsman recently established an Overseas Workers’ Team (OWT) in recognition that overseas workers can be vulnerable to exploitation, or require specialist assistance.
Complaints to the Fair Work Ombudsman from overseas workers come most frequently from South Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese workers.
For more information about workplace laws, click here.