Workers paid as little as $8 take action
A group of migrant farm workers are taking legal action after alleging a labour hire company paid them as little as $8 per hour.
The workers from Vanuatu were employed under the Seasonal Workers Program by labour hire firm Agri Labour to pick fruit on a Victorian farm.
The workers, through their union the National Union of Workers (NUW), have shared shocking details of working conditions including exposure to chemicals, piecemeal wage rates and deductions for visa fees, accommodation and transport which eroded their earnings to far below the minimum wage.
The legal action, which could lead to penalties of $10 million, is thought to be the first launched under the newly enforced Protecting Vulnerable Workers amendment to the Fair Work Act.
Agri Labour has denied all claims of underpayment and exploitation of its workers.
On its website Agri Labour claims “every effort is made to ensure their safety and security needs are met, and that their rates of pay are in line with Fair Work Modern Awards”.
Earlier this year Agri Labour was suspended from employing more workers under the Seasonal Workers Program, pending the outcome of a separate investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman.
Tulia Roqara, one of the five workers bringing the legal action, had hoped to earn enough money to support her young family, but revealed to The Age she was underpaid up to $20,000 and will return home to Vanuatu with next to nothing.
IEUA-QNT Assistant Branch Secretary Brad Hayes said broken industrial laws allowed labour hire companies to exploit and underpay workers far too easily.
“It is a sad reality that the story of exploitation and wage theft shared by these workers is not unique,” Mr Hayes said.
“We have heard many stories of workers who have had their wages stolen by unscrupulous employers who are encouraged by laws that allow them to do so.
“Our union commends these workers for taking a stand and launching legal action; however, it should be easier for workers to pursue lost wages.”
Mr Hayes said we need to strengthen protections for workers and ensure proper regulation of laws so that employees aren’t forced to resort to costly litigation simply to ensure they’re paid what they’re owed.
“It’s time to change the rules, to strengthen our minimum wage protections and to eradicate wage theft in Australia,” Mr Hayes said.