By David Lewis
Updated Thu 19 Jun 2014, 10:08am AEST
The Fair Work Ombudsman is preparing to launch an investigation into claims backpackers employed as fruit pickers in one of the country’s biggest food producing regions are being underpaid by labour hire contractors and forced to live in illegal budget accommodation.
The investigation will focus on the Queensland city of Bundaberg where, each year, thousands of travellers spend at least 88 days working on farms along the harvest trail in order to extend their 417 working holiday visas.
Taiwanese backpacker Claire, who goes by her Australian nickname, moved to the city last June to work on a tomato farm.
Speaking to 7.30, Claire claimed to have been significantly underpaid, forced to sleep in a living room with 25 other backpackers, mostly from Korea, and denied rest breaks despite working all day beneath the sun without shelter.
“We just got $7 a day and we needed to spend maybe six hours a day picking tomatoes,” she said.
The wage was paid in cash by a labour hire contractor who then charged Claire $125 rent each week to sleep on a mattress on the floor.
“The house is just like a pig live there,” she said.
We certainly need these people. They’re very important in our industry and they do get exploited.
Strawberry farmer Merv Schiffke
“Very dirty, very messy because everything is black because of the soil.
“We cannot take a break because one time I felt dizzy because I had a headache and I went back to someone’s car to take a rest and the supervisor blamed me.
“I feel it is very unfair. If I fainted and I fall down on the floor, who has responsibility for me?”
William, also from Taiwan, claims to have been underpaid while picking fruit at a strawberry farm in Caboolture, north of Brisbane.
“We work maybe six days in one week but we get paid maybe $300 … it’s not much,” he said.
William says when the fruit pickers raised concerns, they were quickly dismissed by the labour hire contractor who placed them on the farm.
“They don’t want to solve any problem. They just think it’s you Asian guys’ problem,” he said.
Claire and William eventually quit their jobs and found work on another Caboolture strawberry farm, owned by Merv Schiffke, who has been in the business for more than 40 years.
He says stories like theirs are not unusual and he struggles to understand why anyone would treat their workers that way.
“We certainly need these people. They’re very important in our industry and they do get exploited,” he said.
Mr Schiffke decided long ago to employ his fruit pickers directly but many growers in the horticulture industry rely on labour hire contractors to manage their workers for them and this is where the problems often start.
“I would love to just hand it over to someone else and say ‘you handle the workforce, you handle the paperwork and you do all that’ but we’re not prepared to sacrifice our business or our reputation for people who do the wrong thing,” he said.
The Federal Member for Hinkler, Keith Pitt, who represents the people of Bundaberg, is pushing for legislative changes aimed at driving unscrupulous labour hire contractors out of the horticulture industry.
“It’s hard to identify who these people are,” he said.
“They effectively close their company overnight, they remove their capital assets, they take the cash and they start up down the road with another company name, effectively doing exactly the same thing.”
Mr Pitt recently delivered a speech to Federal Parliament in which he declared “there is a seedy underbelly in the contract labour hire industry in this country”.
The contractors are employed by growers to source fruit pickers on their behalf and to take responsibility for their wages and accommodation.
However, many backpackers complain that some contractors do not pass on their full wage and force them to live illegally in overcrowded sharehouses.
Rick Jillett claims his legitimate contracting business cannot compete with the prices being offered by rogue operators.
“I have actually seen their pricing in the past and it is well below my break-even so there is no possible way it could be above board,” he said.
“They’re not paying superannuation and they’re not paying work cover.”
Mr Pitt says the problem has plagued his electorate for a long time.
“The anecdotal evidence that has been produced to my office would indicate that it is escalating. It is escalating significantly,” he said.
Many labour hire contractors are now brazenly advertising fruit picking jobs for “Asians only” on the internet, raising questions about their motivations.
Caboolture-based fruit packer Donna Moye says her daughter, an Australian, responded to one of the advertisements but was overlooked despite her extensive fruit picking experience.
“She didn’t get a response after she said she was Australian,” Ms Moye said.
Director of the Fair Work Ombudsman’s overseas workers team, Carey Trundle, has warned the advertisements could be in breach of the Fair Work Act.
“It does concern us, the advertising for Asian-only workers,” she said.
“There are discrimination laws in the Fair Work Act and across this country under other legislation, and you’re not allowed to discriminate on the basis of sex or ethnicity.
“You may be required, for example if you’re picking bananas in Queensland, to have a certain amount of strength to undertake that work or to be dexterous if you’re picking strawberries.
“There are job requirements you’re allowed to advertise for but, again, there are laws against discrimination and those should be adhered to by employers.”
Ms Trundle says the investigation in Bundaberg is “imminent” and will comprise of both announced and unannounced inspections.
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