A new report by the Fair Work Ombudsman found an industry characterised by repeat offenders who clearly had no fear of regulation or enforcement.
The report found just one fifth of firms that had been previously audited by the FWO had responded to enforcement action and of those still operating nearly half were breaching workplace laws.
The AWU says it demonstrates that worker exploitation has become a business model and that growers simply don’t fear any consequences.
“This is a sector that’s lawless and comfortable with operating without scrutiny. Even when put explicitly on notice they refuse to change their ways, because wage theft is entrenched as a business model in Australian horticulture. Growers know that if they’re caught they’ll get a slap on the wrist and can go right back exploiting people. The penalties are clearly too weak, there is no oversight – it’s a total rort and it is hurting people. Enough is enough.” said Daniel Walton, National Secretary of the AWU.
“It doesn’t need to be this way. Despite the ridiculous claims of the farming lobby, it’s not necessary to exploit people to produce affordable fruit and veg.
“The idea that people don’t want to work in horticulture is offensive. All work is dignified and should be paid properly.
“There are plenty of good jobs in agriculture that Australians rush to fill – and the reason is quite simple; they’re paid the legal wage.”
The AWU recently says the evidence presented by the Fair Work Ombudsman only adds to its calls to overhaul the entire sector from top to bottom.
Mr Walton said: “We need to bust this model that trades on visa complexity, labour hire exploitation and a lack of enforcement and transparency once and for all.
“The industry claims that Australians don’t want to work in the horticulture industry. That’s just not true – they just don’t want to work under illegal slave conditions and get paid miserably.
“The truth is, Australians know that this sector is lawless – and they’re staying away.
“I’d wager we have a very different story if we actually started paying people a fair wage, provide them career pathways and decent accommodation. The truth is the farming industry has gotten away with exploiting and underpaying backpackers for too long, and they just don’t want the status quo to change and that’s disgraceful. It’s time to break the addiction to wage theft and exploitation.”
The AWU also says an improved visa system with genuine oversight by government and onsite enforcement by unions would help regulate a sector that has spun out of control.
Mr Walton said: “There are some genuine labour shortages due to COVID-19, but it’s certainly not the crisis the industry is claiming. The shortage can be fixed by improving pay and conditions for locals, abolishing the 88 day WHM program and by developing a better policed, properly targeted Seasonal Workers Program. An industry that is built on stealing wages from young backpackers can’t be a model that Australia endorses.
“Unions like the Retail Supply Chain Alliance members (AWU, TWU, SDA) should be given the power to visit farms, do spot checks and start policing the industry as a matter of urgency.”
FWO Inspectors resisted 245 businesses that had been found to have breached workplace laws during the nation-wide Harvest Trail Inquiry. It found 162 were no longer in business, and of the 83 still operating, 38 businesses (or around one fifth) were still in breach and issued 22 compliance notices and seven infringement notices.
The AWU is a member of the FWO Horticulture Industry Reference group.