Exploitation claims send Ombudsman to Bundaberg

A team of workplace inspectors is in Bundaberg today to respond to allegations of exploitation of foreign workers on Queensland farms.

Six Fair Work Ombudsman inspectors are conducting unannounced site visits to properties throughout the southern Queensland region in response to persistent complaints and concerns about non-compliance with federal workplace laws; namely seasonal workers on local fruit and vegetable farms being paid incorrect wages and entitlements.

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.

Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James commented that the ombudsman’s operations are for the benefit of employers and employees alike in order for all parties to understand their workplace obligations.

Ms James says key stakeholders have been enlisted to assist the Agency in promoting the need for compliance and a “level playing field” for all employers.

The Fair Work Ombudsman considers enforcement measures in cases of serious non-compliance, such as issuing Infringement Notices (on-the-spot fines) of up to $2,550.

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.

Ms James says 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 in Bundaberg.

“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.

Ms 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.

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