Foreign Workers Grossly Underpaid On Australian Farms

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A blueberry business has been ordered to back-pay $46,000 to seasonal workers for unpaid wages and entitlements. Image: Kim Honan via abc.net.au

Officials in Australia are again warning backpackers from overseas to make sure they are being paid correctly for work that they are doing during their travels in the country.

It follows the revelation that young people working on blueberry farms at Sandy Beach in New South Wales were underpaid by tens of thousands of dollars.

An investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman found that almost 140 seasonal workers were short changed a total of more than $46,000 between July last year and the end of January this year.

The largest single underpayment was $966 and many of the employees were overseas backpackers in Australia on the 417 working holiday visa. The employers, Jusbinder Singh Benning, Tarlochan Sing Benning, Balbir Kaur Benning and Amarjit Kaur Benning, have agreed to repay all outstanding wages and entitlements.

The underpayments were discovered during the Fair Work Ombudsman’s national Harvest Trail project, which looks at what workers are being paid in the horticulture industry.

Trading as K S Benning & Sons, the employers failed to pay the correct wages and entitlements applicable under the Horticulture Award. They underpaid casual loadings, penalty rates and failed to keep appropriate employment records.

The Bennings’ have apologised and expressed sincere regret for their behaviour and given a commitment that such conduct will not occur again. They have also signed an Enforceable Undertaking (EU) with the Fair Work Ombudsman.

As well as reimbursing the underpaid employees, Bennings’ must now engage an external accounting professional to audit its workplace practices and place workplace notices at its work sites explaining the workplace contraventions and actions taken to remedy them.

They must also implement systems and processes to ensure future compliance with workplace laws, arrange training in workplace relations for managers with responsibility for human resources, recruitment and payroll functions, and make a $5000 donation to the Adele Residential Treatment Programme.

Enforceable Undertakings were introduced by legislation in 2009 and the Fair Work Ombudsman has been using them to achieve strong outcomes against companies that breach workplace laws without the need for civil court proceedings.

“They are used where we have formed a view that a breach of the law has occurred, but where the employer has acknowledged this and accepted responsibility and agreed to co-operate and fix the problem,” said Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James.

Fair Work Ombudsman director Craig Bildstien said the majority of underpaid workers were overseas backpackers employed in Australia on 417 visas.

“I understand they’re from India, South East Asia, Europe and East Central Africa,” Mr Bildstien said.

“It is difficult if they’ve left the country, but we do maintain an unclaimed monies register and we endeavour to contact those employees if we can.

“If the employer is unable to locate them then we hold that money in trust.”

He said the blueberry workers on the Coffs Coast farms were underpaid casual loadings and penalty rates.

“There are minimums under the Horticulture Award and in this case they were breached by this employer,” he said.

“We’ve taken steps to ensure that all those monies will be repaid and to ensure that this sort of behaviour does not occur again.

“The employer will now be required to undertake a number of activities and to make a sizeable donation of some $5,000 to the Adele Residential Treatment Program.

“We use enforceable undertakings now quite regularly as an alternative to litigation and we are of the view that when an employer acknowledges and accepts responsibility and co-operates and fixes the problem that it’s an appropriate mechanism to achieve behavioural change.

Mr Bildstein said 60 employers had been inspected in the local area in the past two years.

“While for the most part compliance has been good, we have found a number of businesses that have required us to look at some compliance outcomes,” he said.

“We have one matter before the courts with respect to record keeping, we have this enforceable undertaking that we’ve announced today, another employer has received a formal letter of caution and another has received an on the spot fine of about $1700.

“So we are continuing with this program to ensure that employers do understand their obligations under workplace laws.

“While we’re here to enforce the laws, we’re also here to assist, educate them and help them to understand and comply.”

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