The Australian vegetable industry has strongly condemned the mistreatment of workers and is taking steps to stamp out “unscrupulous rogue operators” following the release of The Fair Work Ombudsman’s Harvest Trail Inquiry today.
Over the past five years, the ombudsman conducted an inquiry into the conditions of Harvest Trail workers, who follow fresh fruit, vegetables and wine grapes harvests around Australia.
The inquiry, which handled 836 investigations involving 444 growers and 194 labour hire contractors, most of which were picked at random, uncovered widespread non-compliance on fruit and vegetable farms.
More than $1 million in lost wages has been recovered for 2500 workers, but the ombudsman believes the full extent of underpayments to be significantly higher.
Over half of the businesses investigated were in breach of workplace laws including underpayment and failure to keep pay records. The majority of workers, almost 70 per cent, were visa holders.
The report included a number of recommendations to secure industry-wide compliance including the establishment of a Harvest Trail Working Group within the FWO and enhancing the regulatory framework that governs the rights of Harvest Trail participants.
AUSVEG, the industry body representing Australian vegetable growers, today expressed concern about the level of non-compliance in the report but said it is confident actions already undertaken will result in better conditions and remove those operating illegally.
“We categorically condemn the mistreatment of farm workers in any form and this type of behaviour has no place in the horticulture industry,” said AUSVEG Chair and Gippsland vegetable grower Bill Bulmer.
“As an industry we have identified that this is an issue and are working with government, growers, unions, retailers and others in the supply chain to find a workable solution that protects workers and stamps out mistreatment once and for all.”
AUSVEG accepted the key recommendations outlined in the report and has offered to work with the FWO to assist in the implementation.
“AUSVEG has long called for a national labour hire accreditation scheme that has adequate resources for investigation and enforcement to hold rogue operators in the labour hire industry to account and to clean up the sector,” Bulmer said.
“The FWO has also identified the importance of increasing consumer awareness of the ‘true cost’ of fresh produce, including the required labour costs associated with picking and harvesting produce. We are willing to work with retailers to ensure that this is made clearer at the retail level, which will help support the growers in our industry who are doing the right thing and treating their workers appropriately.”