FWO fines farm employers more than $78,000

9 December 2022

The Fair Work Ombudsman has fined growers and labour hire providers in North West Victoria’s Sunraysia region, South Australia’s Riverland, and NSW’s Coffs Harbour and Grafton a combined $78,362 for breaching pay slips and record-keeping laws in the last year.

In contrast, there has been high levels of compliance found in the Queensland growing regions of Wide Bay and Moreton Bay.

Since the regulator began its agriculture strategy in December 2021, it has investigated 237 businesses in hot spots across Australia where intelligence suggests non-compliance may be present.

Fair Work Inspectors have issued a combined 31 Infringement Notices (fines) totalling $35,964 in Sunraysia, $22,644 in the Riverland and $19,754 in Coffs Harbour and Grafton.

Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said employers were expected to apply the rules correctly.

“Record-keeping is the bedrock of compliance. Employers who fail to meet these obligations are more likely to be underpaying, whether intentionally or not. It is concerning that Inspectors have needed to issue close to $80,000 in fines to employers who breached payslip and records laws,” Ms Parker said.

Fair Work Inspectors also issued six Compliance Notices to employers who the Inspectors believed had underpaid workers under an award or had contravened the National Employment Standards. Of these, four were to employers in the Riverland, and one was to an employer in each of Moreton Bay and the Sunraysia region.

All but one of the Compliance Notices related to underpayment of hourly rates. The other, in Mildura, was issued for failure to provide the Fair Work Information Statement to workers.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has investigations into more than 80 agriculture employers ongoing nationally.

Technology helps employers get it right

Ms Parker said agriculture employers who had taken the effort to understand their new obligations since the 28 April 2022 changes to the Horticulture Award, and put in place systems to stay compliant, had been eager to demonstrate their management solutions when inspectors came checking.

“We were pleased to see that some farmers have used technology to make it easier to pay their workers correctly under the award changes. We commend those who do the right thing and hope other farmers are encouraged by these practical methods to ensure compliance,” Ms Parker said.

“Compliance levels so far have been high in the regions of Moreton Bay and Wide Bay in Queensland, and we expect employers in other states to similarly meet all their obligations to their workers, including by investing in their time-and-pay systems.”

“Fair Work Inspectors will continue their site inspections in various hotspots throughout 2023, and any employers who need assistance meeting their obligations should refer to our free resources, and contact the FWO directly if they need help.”

In Moreton Bay, Queensland, and Coomealla, NSW, Fair Work Inspectors observed how some farms had rolled out sophisticated digital systems in response to the 28 April Award changes. Each worker scanned an identification card to clock in and out; at a deposit point out in the field; and when packing fruit in a shed. This delivered real-time data about workers’ performance, including whether they were behind, meeting or exceeding the required productivity. Software automatically identified when a worker needed their wages topped up to ensure they received the guaranteed minimum hourly wage each day that they were engaged as a pieceworker under the Horticulture Award.

In North West Victoria and the Riverland, where there has been less compliance so far found, site inspections identified employers not making and keeping the required records for pieceworkers. Some employers still used piecework agreements that referenced old award clauses and wrongly stated a piece worker would not be guaranteed a minimum rate of pay. Some workers were being paid group piecework rates which is against the law.

Since the 28 April piece rates changes, about $11,000 in Infringement Notices have been issued nationally for deficient record-keeping specifically under the Horticulture Award.

Results summary, so far – Moreton Bay, Wide Bay, Sunraysia and Riverland

Overall, high compliance levels have been found in two Queensland locations. In Moreton Bay, from 38 finalised investigations, only one instance of non-compliance was found, leading to a Compliance Notice being issued to an avocado grower who rectified the minor underpayment. There are 12 investigations on foot.

In Wide Bay, from 36 finalised investigations, only one breach (a minor payslip error) was found. There are investigations into eight businesses still active.

So far, non-compliance has been found to be higher among finalised investigations in North West Victoria. Inspectors investigated 58 businesses in the Sunraysia region following site visits in August 2022 and have so far issued nine Infringement Notices, resulting in $35,964 of fines for pay slip and record-keeping breaches, and one Compliance Notice. About 40 investigations remain ongoing.

In the Riverland, Inspectors investigated 34 businesses following site visits in February and July this year. In addition to the 10 Infringement Notices totalling $22,644, Inspectors issued four Compliance Notices. The regulator has 13 ongoing investigations in this hot spot.

Most recently, Inspectors assessed 21 sites in the Whitsunday Coast, Queensland between November and December. Investigations are ongoing, and further inspections will also take place.

Viticulture investigations

The regulator’s proactive viticulture investigations, which are separate from the hot spot inspections, assessed 35 businesses following site inspections in March and April this year in WA’s Margaret River, Victoria’s Yarra Valley, and SA’s Coonawarra. The FWO issued 12 Infringement Notices totalling $53,260 for record-keeping and pay slip contraventions, plus five Compliance Notices requiring that underpayments believed to have occurred under the Wine Industry Award be rectified.

The FWO’s Horticulture Showcase has self-audit tools, templates for employers hiring pieceworkers and a range of resources for migrant workers. Employers and employees can visit www.fairwork.gov.au or call the Fair Work Infoline on 13 13 94 for free advice and assistance about their rights and obligations in the workplace. A free interpreter service is available on 13 14 50.

Follow the Fair Work Ombudsman @fairwork_gov_au or find us on Facebook www.facebook.com/fairwork.gov.au.

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Media inquiries:

Claire, 0418 825 074, media@fwo.gov.au