Peak Body Berries Australia and Member for Coffs Harbour Call for Labour Hire Licensing Scheme

Berries Australia Executive Director Rachel Mackenzie said workers should take reports of mistreatment to the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO).


PEAK industry body Berries Australia is calling for a national labour hire licensing scheme to be fast tracked in response to the release of the Working Holiday Maker (WHM) Program Inquiry Report and worker shortages and as the McKell Institute Report Blue Harvest alleged worker exploitation last month.

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The WHM Program Inquiry Report, released by the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, recommended the continuation of the Working Holiday Maker programme and the implementation of the recommendations of the Migrant Worker taskforce.

Berries Australia Executive Director Rachel Mackenzie said it was encouraging that the committee understood the importance of the Working Holiday Maker visa subclass to Australian agriculture but also acknowledged that dodgy labour hire companies were damaging the reputation of Australia and the sector.

“Due to the significant increase in labour needs over the harvest period many growers outsource to labour hire providers who are able to coordinate across a large number of smaller growers and employers,” Ms Mackenzie said.

“Competition for labour is extremely high and now more than ever we need a level playing field.

“In many instances the grower pays the contractor the right money, but those funds never make it to the workers and the growers feel unable to push back as they need the crop picked.”

She explained further, “Queensland, South Australia and Victoria have all passed labour hire legislation and Berries Australia has worked closely with the Queensland enforcement team in particular to clean out those who operate unethically.

“NSW has become a hot spot for these dodgy operators as there is no oversight and they phoenix as soon as any enforcement is undertaken.”

The McKell Institute Report Blue Harvest Wage theft & other labour infringements in the NSW Mid-North Coast’s 2019/20 berry harvest, by Edward Cavanough discusses the so-called phoenix labour hire rort.

In his report Mr Cavanough explains a large number of employers recruit through social media with the majority of blueberry phoenix businesses having no discernible ABN.

Of those advertised without identifiable ABNS the report states they can be further categorised.

“The job advertisements posted by entities without an identifiable ABN can further be broken down into three categories: First, some ads were posted where the organisation was listed, but an ABN lookup discerns that this is not an Australian company, or the ABN has been deregistered.

“Where the ads are “Unspecified”, no link to any named business entity is identifiable.”

Ms MacKenzie told News of The Area it is disappointing for the labour hire breaches to continue to occur.

“We educate our growers and the majority do the right thing but again we call on the government for a National Licensing Scheme and if not the federal government then the state government.”

“Our calls for national labour hire licensing are consistent with the positions put forward by many of the Unions, the Recruitment and Consulting Services Association, the National Farmers’ Federation and the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance,” she said.

Berries Australia is seeking a scheme underpinned by a robust enforcement model and increased funding to the Fair Work Ombudsman to put in place significant fines for any wrongdoing whether it be by labour hire or the growers.

Berries Australia also noted allegations made by the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and the McKell Institute about underpayment in the berry industry in the Coffs Harbour region of New South Wales.

Ms Mackenzie argued, “Any fair minded Australian would agree that all workers within the horticulture industry must have confidence in knowing that they will be paid lawfully and treated fairly.

“This goes for all workers, whether they are paid directly by growers or employed through labour hire.”

Local Member for Parliament Gurmesh Singh agreed this week stating, “I would absolutely support any moves to further regulate labour hire so we don’t see stories about this ever again.”

Berries Australia is urging people to use the “workplace cop on the beat” the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) for reporting and enforceable action.

“If the McKell Institute or the AWU have valid and verifiable concerns backed up by evidence, then they should provide this directly to the FWO, rather than try and prosecute a case through the media.

“The Fair Work Ombudsman can deal with these matters in confidence if people are reluctant to come forward,” she said.

Mr Singh agreed, “If anyone is getting exploited they need to speak to the FWO as there are already rigorous rules and it is the job of the FWO to deal with these matters.”

In response, lead author of the McKell Institute Report, Mr Cavanough, told News Of The Area that the FWO can’t be everywhere at once and the lengthy process was off putting.

One of the workers featured in the report, a Japanese national called Makato, started the FWO process but found that the challenges outweighed the benefits.

Mr Cavanough said, “The process is three to four months, usually in a second language and often is over a few weeks of income so workers such as Japanese national Makato decided against completing the process.”

Mr Makato had also raised concerns with the quality of interpreter as well offered by the FWO, before deciding to just move to another farm.

Mr Singh said this was a concern and he would be happy to work with his Federal colleagues to stamp out exploitation and further implement a labour hire licensing scheme.


By Sandra MOON

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