The Retail Supply Chain’s Alliance report into systematic underpayment and worker exploitation in the berry industry has set off a wave of reaction and calls for legislative change from across the industry and the Federal Government.
Federal Government Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the investigations findings were ‘disgraceful’ and is now considering the AWU’s call for a royal commission.
The AWU says it’s high time Canberra and the farming industry accepts the problems are not just limited to a ‘few bad apples’ and are far more ingrained and widespread as demonstrated by the McKell Institute’s explosive report Blue Harvest.
Daniel Walton, National Secretary of the AWU, said: “Talk is easy, we now need action. There are always excuses put forward by the industry and unless the Federal Government forces it to change, workers will continue to be exploited.
“We are also urging the good farmers to work with us and rid the industry of the operators who have been able get away with this blatant behaviour for years.”
Speaking on Sky News, Minister Littleproud said rates of pay as low as $3 a hour uncovered in the three month inquiry in the Coffs Harbour region, were “unacceptable” and “disgraceful”.
He said: “It’s disgraceful, there’s no other way you can sugar-coat it.
“What needs to happen is those small minority that bend the rules and cut corners and exploit people need to be weeded out.
“It actually destroys the reputation of agricultural work, and that’s not what we want, the vast majority do the right thing.”
When asked if he would support a royal commission, Minister Littleproud said “you never say never to a royal commission”. But added he favoured addressing the problems through strengthened and harmonised state laws.
National Farmers Federation said the bad conduct was among “very few” employers and threatened to tarnish the reputation of the majority of growers.
NFF chief executive Tony Mahar said whilst the industry shared the AWU’s concerns, it did not support calls for an “expensive and unlikely royal commission”,
Berries Australia is calling for a national labour hire licensing scheme to be fast tracked.
Berries Australia Executive Director Rachel Mackenzie also acknowledged that dodgy labour hire companies were operating across the sector. She said: “Queensland, South Australia and Victoria have all passed labour hire legislation and Berries Australia has worked closely with the Queensland enforcement team in particular to clean out those who operate unethically.
“Unfortunately, as there is no scheme in NSW it has become a hot spot for these dodgy operators as there is no oversight and they phoenix as soon as any enforcement is undertaken.
“Whilst the State based schemes are a good start these regulations and registrations are not consistent across states making the existing schemes difficult to operate for both labour hire providers and growers who operate across multiple states.”