The watchdog tasked with cleaning up Australia’s horticultural industry has only fined 15 farms for worker exploitation in the past two-and-a-half years, despite receiving hundreds of requests for assistance.
Addressing the rampant exploitation in the picking industry was marked as a priority for the Fair Work Ombudsman’s office, which vowed to conduct an industry-wide “crackdown”.
But figures released to The New Daily under FOI laws show pay disputes in horticulture make up less than 1 per cent of the ombudsman’s 26,900 annual closed cases.
It comes amid increasing reports of exploitation, with some workers revealing they have been paid as little as $2 an hour to pick fruit while others told of working among human faeces with colleagues allegedly trafficked from mainland China.
Farming organisations, including the National Farmers Federation, say the FWO will help workers find justice if they’ve been exploited.
The data TND was given tells a differently story.
In the past two and a half years, the ombudsman received 349 requests for help from people picking fruit and vegetables on Australian farms.
Their complaints ranged from poor pay to poorer working conditions.
Of that number, 117 complaints progressed to formal disputes, the majority of which resulted in ‘education’ directions for the growers or labour-hire contractors.
Twenty-two farms were slapped with compliance notices, but the number of actual fines handed down was just 15.
An FWO spokesperson responded to TND by outlining examples of the more than $189,000 in court penalties it had also secured from three business that exploited a total of 93 workers.
One was against a labour-hire contractor for a mushroom farm that underpaid 80 workers a total of $78,664 over an eight-month period in 2014.
The former owner-operator, Tao Hu, was penalised just $22,440.
Melbourne man Nicholas Larter, 27, spent three months picking blueberries in Coffs Harbour late last year with his girlfriend, who was fulfilling her working holiday visa requirement.
He alleges they were underpaid thousands of dollars by their contractor, which purported to pay some of the best wages in the region.
One week, Mr Larter said he made $5.25 an hour.
“The whole time regardless of how much you’re picking, we couldn’t make minimum wage,” he said.
“They also incorporated our superannuation into the piece rate, so it looked higher. That never got paid.
“The whole time you knew you were getting shafted.”
His friend was put on a supervisor shift, then told he wouldn’t get paid for the day – so he went to the FWO, which told him the case wasn’t worth the effort.
“They said, ‘We know about the employer, but it’s not enough money for us to pursue’,” Mr Larter recounted.
“It paints a bad picture of Australia.”
The contractor was contacted for comment but did not respond.
Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey said the picking industry was full of “cowboys” who “should be fined and driven out”.
“Some pickers are getting paid $100 a week and then paying $160 for board and food. It’s criminal,” Mr Morey said.
Mr Morey said many backpackers and other migrant workers don’t even attempt to contact the FWO about their exploitation because there is no firewall between it and the Department of Home Affairs, which has the power to deport them.
“We have a cohort of workers who are afraid and unable to enforce their rights,” Mr Morey said.
The only other organisation aimed at addressing exploitation in the industry is Fair Farms, an industry-led voluntary program that had only 30 farms join up in its first 18 months.
Mr Morey said the industry’s peak body, the NFF, was aware of the level of exploitation but continued to “obfuscate” its responsibility by “pretending” the FWO had any ability to crack down on exploitation.
“There’s a problem in the agriculture sector, fundamentally, if they have to rely on lowly paid workers to pick fruit,” he said.
“Not all farmers, but a lot of the labour-hire companies are working on the assumption their profits are based on exploitation.”
Migrant Workers Centre director Matt Kunkel said there was no disincentive for employers to not pay people properly.
“FWO needs more people on the ground, but we also need a change in the industry’s disposition so that employers fear having someone come onto their site, and there are real genuine punishments,” Mr Kunkel said.
“That’s less a problem with the Ombudsman and more a problem with how the system works.”
The whole sector relied on “poverty wages”, and the task of dealing with the exploitation was too large for the FWO.
“The most important thing we can do is create changes to the system that builds a real disincentive to employers to do the wrong thing,” he said.
“Genuine measures that force employers to take the issues 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 Work Ombudsman.
“The FWO has extensive resources to assist those who speak languages other than English.”
Do you know more? Contact Cait Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org