Darwin horticulture focus of Fair Work inspectors

8 July 2014

Fair Work Ombudsman inspectors will visit melon, banana and vegetable growers in the greater Darwin area this month to ensure seasonal workers are being paid their correct wages and entitlements.

The Fair Work Ombudsman’s Regional Services Team is making the unannounced site visits to local properties as part of its three-year Harvest Trail project.

The national project is in response to persistent complaints and concerns about the horticulture sector’s compliance with federal workplace laws.

Farmers and labour-hire contractors will be asked to open their books, allowing inspectors to view records, with a particular emphasis on minimum pay rates, loadings and penalties.

Record keeping and payslip obligations will also be monitored.

Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James says it is important that horticulture sector employers in Darwin understand their workplace obligations.

Ms James says Darwin fruit and vegetable growers rely heavily on labour from unskilled workers, temporary workers and employees from a non-English speaking background who may not be fully aware of their workplace rights.

“It is important that local employers understand and are complying with their workplace obligations,” she said.

The first preference of Fair Work inspectors will be to work co-operatively with employers to assist them to correct any issues by agreement and put processes in place to ensure future compliance.

However, they will consider enforcement measures in cases of serious non-compliance, such as issuing Infringement Notices (on-the-spot fines) of up to $2550.

In the event of a matter being so serious it warrants subsequent legal action, penalties of up to $51,000 per breach are applicable to companies and $10,200 to individuals.

Ms James says checking that employers are complying with their obligation to have written agreements in place for workers paid piece-work rates is also a key focus of the Harvest Trail program.

“This is a really important issue. In the absence of a piece-work agreement workers are required to be paid hourly rates of pay according to the Horticulture Award 2010,” she said.

Over the next few years the Fair Work Ombudsman will visit dozens of fruit and vegetable farms throughout Australia as part of its focus on the entitlements of seasonal harvest workers.

“We want to ensure employers understand and meet their workplace obligations and we are also seeking information about industry factors that influence compliance levels,” she said.

Ms James says complaints to the Fair Work Ombudsman from fruit and vegetable pickers have identified a number of common issues, including:

  • Employees being unaware of who their legal employer is because they do not receive pay slips and are paid cash by a third party who may not be their employer,
  • Employers underpaying the minimum hourly rate under the Horticulture Award 2010, 
  • Employers failing to keep time and wages records, particularly for casual employees, 
  • Employers failing to give new employees a copy of the Fair Work Information statement, and 
  • Employers making unlawful deductions to employees’ wages. 

“The knowledge we gain from these activities will help us to better direct our education and campaign activities, particularly in relation to the overseas workers employed in this sector,” Ms James said.

The Fair Work Ombudsman recently established an Overseas Workers’ Team (OWT) in recognition that overseas workers can be vulnerable to exploitation, or require specialist assistance. 

Overseas workers are often not fully aware of their workplace rights under Australian laws – and youth, language and cultural barriers can also create difficulties for them. 

Complaints to the Fair Work Ombudsman from overseas workers come most frequently from South Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese workers. 

Any employer or employee seeking information or advice about workplace laws is encouraged to use the free tools and resources available at www.fairwork.gov.au/horticulture, or contact the Fair Work Infoline on 13 13 94

Online tools include PayCheck Plus and an Award Finder to assist business owners and employees determine the correct award and minimum wages for their industry, templates for pay slips and piece-rate agreements and a range of fact sheets on workplace entitlements. 

A free interpreter service is also available on 13 14 50 and information on the website is translated into 27 languages at www.fairwork.gov.au/languages

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Media inquiries:

Penny Rowe, Senior Media Adviser
Mobile: 0457 924 146