Vanuatu seasonal farm workers in landmark A$10m law suit against Australian company
30 July, 2018, 7:00 pm
SYDNEY, 30 JULY 2018 (THE AGE) — Migrant farm workers from Vanuatu have launched a landmark $10 million (US$7.4 million) legal claim against their former Australian labour hire employer for gross underpayment and mistreatment.
The Federal Court action against Agri Labour will use — thought to be for the first time — laws introduced by the Turnbull government to protect vulnerable workers from exploitation.
In May, The Sunday Age revealed that 50 workers from Vanuatu had worked in shocking conditions on a farm near Shepparton, and had earned as little as $8 (US$5.91) an hour.
Some workers reported bleeding from the nose and ears after chemical exposure while picking tomatoes at MCG Fresh Produce.
The workers were brought to Australia by Brisbane-based labour hire firm Agri Labour, which has strongly denied the allegations levelled against it as “false”.
Soon after The Sunday Age’s report, the federal government suspended Agri Labour from bringing new workers to Australia under its Seasonal Worker Programme.
The Fair Work Ombudsman has also launched an investigation.
Tulia Roqara, one of five workers that has brought the case, told The Sunday Age from Vanuatu that they want “justice” and to be paid back money owed to them.
“’We want things to change for the future,” she said.
In the legal claim, Roqara alleges she was underpaid as much as $11,000 (US$8,140) for four months work through both underpayment and unlawful deductions from her pay by Agri Labour.
After deductions for rent, food, airfares, transport and visas, the claim alleges, she was paid as little as $3.17 (US$2.34) an hour. The five workers making the claim say they were underpaid up to $20,000 each for just four months work.
Agri Labour’s Casey Brown said his company had been “co-operating fully” with investigations into its conduct. He described the claims against it as “false’”.
“We are currently awaiting the findings of the Fair Work Ombudsman, and we remain confident that there will be no significant adverse findings against us.”
The Protecting Vulnerable Workers amendments to the Fair Work Act allow for massive penalties against employers that breach them.
They were introduced nearly a year ago after a series of wage scandals in Australia.
Workplace Minister Craig Laundy said the new laws had increased penalties by up to 10 times higher than before, while the government had also boosted funding for the Fair Work Ombudsman.
“The Turnbull government will not tolerate the exploitation of workers by unscrupulous employers, which is why we passed the Vulnerable Workers Act,” he said.
Laundy encouraged anyone with concerns around the Seasonal Worker Program to contact the Department of Jobs and Small Business.
While the size of the total claim is huge – alleging more than 80 contraventions – it is likely if they do win, any penalties could be large but significantly less than the maximum $10 million (US$7.4 million) sought.
Agri Labour’s owners Casey Brown and Luke Brown have claims against them personally of more than $1 million (US$740,000) each.
Casey Brown said the Federal Court action was the latest “ideological attack by unions on the labour-hire business.”
“We’re not surprised that we found out about this via the media, before we had even been served with court documents,” he said.
Holding Redlich partner Charles Power, a lawyer for the five workers, said as far as he was aware “this is the first legal action” using the new amendments to the law.
The workers are being backed by the National Union of Workers, which is running a campaign to improve working conditions in the almost entirely non-union farm sector.
“The minimum wage should be the standard in the Australian horticulture sector, not the exception,” said NUW national secretary Tim Kennedy.
“We have exposed too many employers doing the wrong thing over the last three years, and it has to stop. Workers are sick and tired of wage theft and we’re backing them all the way.”
The Agri Labour workers were paid piece rates, where payment is based on how much you pick.
The horticulture award says an average competent employee should earn 15 per cent more than the minimum hourly rate in the award for piece work.
That should be more than $25 (US$18.50) an hour for a casual. Instead the workers allege, they received far lower pay rates.
The Department of Jobs and Small Business last week confirmed Agri Labour was still suspended from the Seasonal Worker Program “pending the outcome of investigations”.
Casey Brown described this as a “routine” response from government once a serious complaint is made. “This is a bureaucratic process which we hope will be lifted when the Fair Work complaint is resolved soon.”
The federal government-approved Seasonal Worker Programme is meant to be an important part of Australia’s outreach to the Pacific region and Timor-Leste.
Farms get access to labour, workers earn award wages far beyond what they could make at home, while tiny Pacific countries receive a big economic boost from those wages when workers return.