Peak production horticulture body Growcom has supported Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton’s statement that those who employ illegal farm workers and abuse working holiday maker visa programs should continue to be investigated and prosecuted.

This follows the detention and removal this week by the federal Department of Immigration of nearly 30 farm workers on a strawberry farm on the Granite Belt.

Chief Advocate Rachel Mackenzie said while most growers are doing the right thing, there are a few bad apples who are tarnishing the horticulture industry’s reputation and driving down prices for fruit and vegetables by undercutting their neighbours.

“There are no excuses for growers doing the wrong thing, either directly or through unscrupulous Labour Hire Contractors where backpackers are underpaid and exploited and visa fraud committed. There are plenty of opportunities for growers to educate themselves and get their operation in order through us,” said Ms Mackenzie.

“Growcom continues to work diligently with growers to ensure they are informed of their obligations,” said Ms Mackenzie.

“We currently have Workplace Essentials Seminars running in major horticultural areas in Queensland. Growers who are not sure whether what they are doing meets their obligations should attend or ring us for advice. Growers need only visit the Growcom website – www.growcom.com.au/events/ – to find a workshop near them, including a meeting in Stanthorpe on 23 March.

“In dealing with labour hire contractors, in particular, growers need to do their due diligence and:

  • Look for a well known and legitimate LHC – check with neighbours and other growers who may have used them.
  • Don’t even consider offers that are clearly in breach of the Award – an offer to provide labour at $20 per hour is likely to be illegal and a grower will be drawn into a prosecution if it can be demonstrated that they willingly entered into such an arrangement.
  • Check the bona fides of the operator. Contact the Australian Securities and Investment Commission, the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Australian Tax Office to ensure the business is a legitimate operator and does not have matters against it, pending or on file.
  • Make a written agreement with all LHC which sets out the obligations and responsibilities of each party. This must cover all legal and Award obligations and stipulate that the LHC will provide evidence that wages are being paid correctly, and WorkCover, superannuation and tax are also in line with the law.
  • Appoint an overseer or supervisor to oversee the work of the contract workers.
  • Ensure a comprehensive on-site Work Health and Safety induction is done – this cannot be referred to anyone else.
  • Do random checks with the workers to ensure they are being paid correctly and are receiving their entitlements.
  • Work with an industry association such as Growcom to promote good operators, identify dodgy ones and promote the good reputation of the industry.

“The Fair Work Ombudsman holds growers responsible for ensuring that people working on their farms, whether directly employed or via a labour hire provider, are receiving the correct entitlements. There is a clear avenue for action where intent to enter into a sub-standard arrangement can be shown (e.g. a grower accepts an arrangement for less than $22.13 per hour).

“Growers need to enter into a written agreement with a labour hire company which clearly establishes the respective rights and responsibilities of each party, including correct payment of wages, superannuation and WorkCover, as well as visa checking.”

Ms Mackenzie said that Growcom called on the Queensland Government to support national recommendations on the regulation of labour hire companies through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), rather than set up a State based system.

“We applaud the work of Taskforce Cadena in disrupting and disbanding illegal worker operations in the horticulture industry. We also support the Fair Work Ombudsman’s pursuit through the courts of those who would exploit farm workers– especially the backpackers and seasonal workers who are so vital to our harvests – to line their own pockets.”