Queensland strawberry farm faces Court for allegedly short-changing workers

9 June 2016

The Fair Work Ombudsman is seeking to overhaul the practices of a Queensland strawberry farm it alleges flouts workplace laws and underpays its workers.

The farm employs up to 200 workers during the picking season.

Facing court is strawberry farm owner Hour (George) Him, his company I Luv Pty Ltd and his partner Tay-Duc Nguyen, the operations manager.

They operate a strawberry farm on Newlands Road at Cottonvale, near Stanthorpe.

Mr Him also owns and operates another strawberry farm in Queensland.

His farms supply strawberries that are sold at Coles, Woolworths and other retailers.

The alleged underpayment of six employees was discovered during a surprise visit to the I Luv property by Fair Work inspectors in April last year.

The random audit was part of the Agency's national Harvest Trail Inquiry aimed at improving compliance with workplace laws in the horticulture industry.

The six employees were allegedly underpaid a total of $2601 over a two-week period between March 28 and April 10, 2015.

One employee was allegedly paid nothing for 39 hours’ work.

The other five employees were allegedly not paid the double time rates that they were entitled to for working on public holidays over the Easter holiday period.

Several of the workers were in Australia on 417 working holiday visas.

It is not the first time the Fair Work Ombudsman has received complaints from employees at the strawberry farm that they were being underpaid.

In 2013, Fair Work inspectors received a number of complaints and found the farm was underpaying minimum hourly rates of pay, public holiday rates and failing to keep proper time and wage records.

As a result, the company was required to back-pay nine employees almost $21,300.

I Luv Pty Ltd was issued with two contravention letters and a Letter of Caution placing it on notice that further breaches may result in enforcement action.

The Fair Work Ombudsman claims Mr Him, a member of Growcom Australia and the Queensland Strawberry Growers Association, has disregarded his workplace responsibilities despite being aware of his obligations.

While the six employees have now been back-paid in full, legal proceedings have commenced in the Federal Circuit Court in Brisbane.

The Fair Work Ombudsman is seeking penalties against Mr Him, Ms Nguyen and I Luv Pty Ltd, as well as Court Orders requiring the company to commission a professional external audit of its workplace practices and to rectify any underpayments identified.

In addition, the Fair Work Ombudsman is seeking court orders requiring Mr Him and Ms Nguyen to participate in training in relation to workplace obligations.

Mr Him and Ms Nguyen each face maximum a penalty of up to $10,200 and the company faces penalties of up to $51,000 per contravention.

The Fair Work Ombudsman is also seeking Court Orders requiring I Luv Pty Ltd to register with the My Account service at www.fairwork.gov.au and use the educational self-help tools for employers available.

A directions hearing is listed in the Federal Circuit Court in Brisbane on 11 July 2016.

Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James says her Agency is devoting considerable resources to ensuring the many farms around the country that rely heavily on labour from overseas workers are complying with workplace laws.

The Harvest Trail Inquiry was launched in response to ongoing requests for assistance from employees in the horticulture sector and confusion among growers and labour-hire contractors about their workplace obligations.

"We are conscious many fruit pickers are young overseas workers, who may be vulnerable if they are not fully aware of their rights, are reluctant to complain or face language barriers," Ms James said.

"It's important we are proactive about ensuring they receive their full lawful entitlements."

The Fair Work Ombudsman is also conducting a national review of the wages and conditions of overseas workers in Australia on the 417 working holiday visa after receiving allegations that some unscrupulous operators were exploiting backpackers.

The Fair Work Ombudsman recovered more than $2.2 million in underpaid wages and entitlements for 513 visa-holders from disputes completed by the Agency last calendar year - an average of $4317 each.

The Agency received a total 1916 requests for assistance from visa-holders in 2015, or 12.6 percent of the total number lodged by all workers.

Workers on the 417 backpacker working holiday visa accounted for 807 requests for assistance last year. Almost $1 million of all money recovered for overseas workers last year was for 250 employees on 417 working holiday visas.

Ms James reiterated her call for major national employers to be proactive about trying to ensure workers involved in their supply chains are not being exploited.

"Increasingly, if we find a business underpaying workers and that business is part of a supply chain, we are looking up to the top, because the business at the top of the supply chain is the price-maker and controls the settings," she said.

Employers and employees seeking assistance can visit www.fairwork.gov.au or call the Fair Work Infoline on 13 13 94. An interpreter service is available on 13 14 50.

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