Farmers are being warned they could be held liable for the underpayment of workers on their farms, even if they're employed through labour hire companies.
ABC Rural, 4 August 2014
The Fair Work Ombudsman is cracking down on the exploitation of working holiday makers on 417 visas, following a spike in complaints.
Ombudsman Natalie James says foreign workers, who are required to work 88 days in a regional area to gain a one-year visa extension, are increasingly complaining about their wages and conditions.
"These workers often don't complain," Ms James said.
"They are primarily often concerned with just getting the 88 days' work and obviously they need to produce evidence of that, and so I think there is a tendency to put up with a lot before they will complain.
"The thing that really caught our eye was a couple of years ago, in 2011/12, we recovered around $67,000 for people working under these arrangements, and in the last financial year that's just gone, it's almost $350,000, so that's almost five times as much in just a couple of years.
"Complaints from 417 visas now are almost a third of complaints from all overseas workers and visa holders and we're seeing an increase both in the number of people coming out on these visas, and the number of complaints.
Ombudsman Natalie James says she's heard reports of fruit pickers earning well below award wages.
"We hear things like $8 an hour, or even less," Ms James said.
"There was an example with some strawberry farmers in Caboolture last year where I think they were being paid less than $4 an hour. I think they were on piece rate, so it worked out that they were being paid per punnet, but it was a very low amount."
She says farmers are responsible for ensuring workers on their properties are being paid award wages, even if they are employed through labour hire companies.
"If you're not employing the people who are working on your farm, but you are closing your eyes to the fact that these workers are being consulted and they are not being paid their minimum rates, then you need to be aware that you could be found liable, if you knew, or you should have known that was going on."
Carl Walker, president of the Bowen Gumlu Growers Association, which represents fruit and vegetable growers in north Queensland's Bowen region, says his industry would fall apart if it weren't for workers on 417 visas.
"Travelling overseas workers, which are commonly known as backpackers, our industry, right over Australia, is extremely reliant on them to fill up the spots we can't manage to fill with Australians," Mr Walker said.
"They're good kids, they turn up every day, they have to work, if they don't work they don't eat and if they don't work they don't get their second visa."
Mr Walker has welcomed the Fair Work Ombudsman's crackdown on the wages and conditions of 417 visa workers, and says it will target the small minority of people who are doing the wrong thing.
He's heard stories of farmers being duped by dodgy contractors, who tell them they are employing a certain number of workers to pick a crop, but actually employ more workers and pay them less.
"The contracts that they (labour hire firms) sign with growers ... say number one that the person must be paid a minimum of X amount ... they must have their visa, they must be eligible to work, all these conditions are on these contracts and they sign it," Mr Walker said.
"If the contractor doesn't adhere to those rules, it's really hard for the grower to say 'hang on a minute, I trusted this bloke I thought he was doing the right thing, but it turns out he's not'.
"How can the grower be liable? It's a very, very grey area," he said.