The watchdog tasked with cleaning up Australia’s horticulture industry has fined just 15 farms for exploitation by workers in the past two and a half years, despite hundreds of requests for assistance.
Tackling rampant exploitation in the picking industry was seen as a priority for the office of the Fair Labor Ombudsman, which pledged to carry out an industry-wide ‘crackdown’ .
But the figures published for TBEN under freedom of information laws, horticultural wage disputes account for less than 1 percent of the 26,900 cases closed by the ombudsman.
It comes amid growing reports of exploitation, with some workers revealing they were paid as little as $ 2 an hour to pick fruit while others said they worked among human feces with colleagues who would have been trafficked from mainland China.
Farmers ‘organizations, including the National Farmers’ Federation, say the FWO will help workers find justice if they have been exploited.
The data TND was given tells a different story.
Over the past two and a half years, the Ombudsman has received 349 requests for help from people picking fruit and vegetables on Australian farms.
Their complaints ranged from poor pay to poor working conditions.
Of those, 117 complaints evolved into formal disputes, the majority of which resulted in “education” guidelines for producers or contractors who hire labor.
Twenty-two farms were slapped with notices of compliance, but the number of fines actually imposed was only 15.
A spokesperson for the FWO responded to TNDrequests, giving examples of complaints that resulted in fines.
The spokesperson said they had obtained legal penalties of more than $ 144,000 for three companies that exploited a total of 93 workers.
One was against a hired labor contractor for a mushroom farm who underpaid 80 workers for a total of $ 78,664 over an eight-month period in 2014.
Former owner-operator Tao Hu was only penalized by $ 22,440.
Nicholas Larter, 27, of Melbourne, spent three months picking blueberries in Coffs Harbor late last year with his girlfriend, who was fulfilling her working holiday visa requirement.
He alleges that they were underpaid thousands of dollars by their contractor, who claimed to pay some of the best wages in the area.
One week, Mr. Larter said he was making $ 5.25 an hour.
“All the time, no matter how much you choose, we couldn’t get minimum wage,” he said.
“They also incorporated our superannuation into the piece rate, so it seemed higher. It was never paid for.
“All the while you knew you were getting fucked.
His friend was assigned a shift supervisor and then told he wouldn’t be paid for the day – so he went to the FWO, which told him the case was not worth it .
“They said, ‘We know the employer, but it’s not enough money for us to sue,’” Larter said.
“It gives Australia a bad image.”
The contractor was contacted for comment but did not respond.
New South Wales union secretary Mark Morey said the picking industry was full of “cowboys” who “should be fined and kicked out”.
“Some pickers are paid $ 100 per week, then $ 160 for board and food. It’s criminal, ”Mr. Morey said.
Mr Morey said many backpackers and other migrant workers did not even try to contact the FWO about their exploitation because there was no firewall between it and the Home Office, who has the power to expel them.
“We have a cohort of workers who are afraid and unable to claim their rights,” Morey said.
The only other organization focused on tackling exploitation in the industry is Fair Farms, an industry-led volunteer program that only signed up 30 farms in its first 18 months.
Mr Morey said the industry’s leading body, the NFF, was aware of the level of exploitation, but continued to “obscure” its responsibility by “claiming” that the FWO had the ability to crack down on it. ‘exploitation.
“There is a problem in the agricultural sector, fundamentally, if they have to rely on low paid workers to pick fruit,” he said.
“It’s not all farmers, but a lot of labor companies who assume that their profits are based on the farm.”
The director of the Migrant Worker Center, Matt Kunkel, said there was no incentive for employers to pay people incorrectly.
“FWO needs more people on the ground, but we also need a change in the layout of the industry so that employers fear that someone is coming to their site, and that there are genuine punishments, ”Kunkel said.
“It’s less of a problem with the Mediator and more of a problem with the functioning of the system.”
The whole sector depended on “poverty wages” and the task of coping with exploitation was too heavy for the FWO.
“The most important thing we can do is create changes in the system that really discourage employers from doing the wrong thing,” he said.
“Real measures that force employers to take problems as seriously as their tax considerations.”
A spokesperson for the FWO said: “Protecting vulnerable workers, including migrant workers and visa holders, is a priority for the Fair Labor Ombudsman.
“The FWO has vast resources to help those who speak languages other than English.”