The supermarket giant Woolworths says it does not know of any legal obligation to ensure farm workers are not exploited, but it does have a moral one.
Appearing before a senate inquiry into Australia’s temporary work visa program, Woolworths said it was not up to it to enforce the law.
Since an ABC Four Corners report on the subject, Coles and Woolworths have been under pressure to ensure their supply chain is ethical.
The head of corporate responsibility at Woolworths, Armineh Mardirossian, was asked whether Woolworths has a legal obligation to make sure conditions and wages are being met.
“We expect that they are met. I’m not a legal expert, so I really can’t answer that question,” Ms Mardirossian said.
The company’s head of trade relations, Ian Dunn, indicated the company takes some responsibility, even if it is not a legal one.
“We would certainly agree that we have a moral responsibility to ensure that suppliers to us first of all understand the conditions on which we’re willing to accept supply and to trade with them and then, secondly, to ensure that they’re aware that they need to live up to those standards,” Mr Dunn said.
That responsibility is covered by the Woolworths’ ethical sourcing policy.
Ms Mardirossian told the inquiry that, under that policy, Australia is regarded as a low-risk country for worker exploitation and that means the Woolworths ethical auditing program does not apply to Australian companies.
“The audit program applies to countries that we view as high risk or moderate risk and that’s based on all the analytics that’s available from very good sources,” she said, adding that it is not necessary to review that either.
More than 180,000 people were granted a working holiday, or 417 visa, last financial year.
Now the Senate Education and Employment References Committee is examining the impact of Australia’s temporary work visa programs on the Australian labour market and on the temporary work visa holders.
Since the Four Corners report, Coles and Woolworths have been under pressure to ensure their supply chain is ethical.
Woolworths is yet to have a meeting with the National Union of Workers to discuss the issues.
Union organiser George Robertson told the inquiry supermarkets can do more.
“Our position is that every single thing that makes it onto the shelves of Woolworths and Coles or any other supermarket should be guaranteed to be produced ethically,” said Mr Robertson.
The union wants federal legislation to create a licensing system and greater regulation for labour hire companies.