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Australia: Labour hire company Agri Labour Australia faces allegations of underpaying workers; dangerous working conditions

Labour hire company Agri Labour Australia faces allegations of underpaying farm labourers. Workers also claim that they experienced "bleeding episodes" after breathing in farm chemicals. 

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre invited Agri Labour to respond to concerns about dangerous working conditions and allegations that the company underpaid labourers from Vanuatu working on a Victorian farm. The company's response is linked below.

The original media reports, which include statements by Agri Labour Australia, are also linked below. 

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Article
29 October 2018

Australia: Agri Labour settles migrant workers' claim for underpayment and mistreatment

Author: Ben Schneiders, Sydney Morning Herald

"Migrant farm workers launch landmark $10m legal claim", 14 October 2018

Migrant farm workers from Vanuatu have won a significant financial settlement after a landmark legal claim that used new laws designed to protect vulnerable workers from exploitation...

Five of those workers took the initial legal action against...Agri Labour Australia and have now settled for a combined [AUD]$150,000...

The...Protecting Vulnerable Workers amendments to the Fair Work Act allow for massive penalties against employers that breach them. They were introduced...after a series of wage scandals in Australia. Penalties are up to 10 times higher than previously. The case brought by the workers from Vanuatu is thought to be the first legal action that used these laws...

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Article
30 July 2018

Australia: Migrant farm workers launch landmark [AUD]$10m federal court action; tests new legislation protecting vulnerable workers

Author: Ben Schneiders, Sydney Morning Herald

"Migrant farm workers launch landmark $10m legal claim", 29 July 2018

Migrant farm workers from Vanuatu have launched a landmark [AUD]$10 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...to protect vulnerable workers from exploitation.

...50 workers from Vanuatu had worked in shocking conditions on a farm near Shepparton, and had earned as little as [AUD]$8 an hour.

Some workers reported bleeding from the nose and ears after chemical exposure while picking tomatoes...

The workers were brought to Australia by...labour hire firm Agri Labour...strongly denied the allegations levelled against it as "false"...the federal government suspended Agri Labour from bringing new workers to Australia under its Seasonal Worker Program.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has also launched an investigation...

In the legal claim, Ms Roqara alleges she was underpaid as much as [AUD]$11,000 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 [AUD]$3.17 an hour. The five workers making the claim say they were underpaid up to $20,000 each for just four months work..

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...

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Company response
17 July 2018

Agri Labour Australia's response

Author: Agri Labour Australia

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre invited the company to respond to claims of underpayment of workers and dangerous working conditions.

The company responded:

"Comments attributed to Agri Labour Australia Managing Director Casey Brown

• We are vigorously defending ourselves in the Fair Work Commission investigation. We welcome this investigation and we deny that our business has done anything unlawful.
• We will continue to assist the Fair Work Ombudsman with its investigation.
• We are investigating all the claims made in the media, although in some cases we have been given no details or evidence of the claims – despite repeated requests.
• Agri Labour Australia was engaged by MCG Fresh Produce, near Shepparton, in November 2017, to provide 50 farm labourers under the Federal Seasonal Worker Program. Nine of these workers were returning to the farm, having worked there last season. They were from Vanuatu.
• Given the reputation of the Shepparton area as a hotspot for unscrupulous workforce management, Agri Labour Australia contacted the Federal Government’s Seasonal Worker Program to check the bona fides of the employer. We received no adverse feedback about the employer, although we have since learned we are the fourth supplier of labour to this farm in four years.
• The pay and conditions of the workforce were under piecework agreements, where payment is determined by the worker’s productivity. We are confident that the investigation will find that the business set piecework rates that an average competent person could achieve and that complied with the law. We also note that the piece rates were set and approved under the correct procedures of the seasonal worker program.
• Early in the engagement, Agri Labour Australia discovered that the supervision on site was not what was anticipated and therefore this did not help workers achieve their picking targets. So we paid for one of our senior management staff to go on site and help the workers achieve their productivity targets, in order to maximise their pay.
• On the basis of feedback that the manager provided about the farm, one of the Directors of Agri Labour Australia personally visited the site to speak with workers. We then funded an additional two supervisors from within the group of workers.
• These measures resulted in an increase in attendance and productivity on the part of the workers, which in turn boosted their remuneration. We also topped up the pay packets of the seasonal workers from our proceeds of the engagement.
• Ideally, we would have removed the workers from the farm and placed them elsewhere as soon as the issues around low piece rates were presented, but it was difficult to find new positions for 50 people, particularly when they have travelled to Australia as a group and wanted to stay together. Fortunately, we were able to move them to another farm.
• We have reviewed our own client vetting procedures as a result of this contract, and we can say that the farm would not pass our new client assessment process in our opinion."

Article
18 June 2018

"Australia's bitter harvest: 'There will be more deaths'"

Author: Leesha McKenny & Luke Waters, SBS News

18 June 2018

Jone Roqica...collapsed while picking apples in regional Victoria...

...Mr Roqica’s death...comes at a time when the agricultural sector...has been plagued by concerns about how it treats the thousands flocking to Australia each year.

Alison Rahill, an anti-slavery advocate from the Salvation Army...heard allegations from workers including beatings, withholding of wages and intimidation. “There are slavery-like practices happening definitely in the agriculture sector,” Ms Rahill said.  

...Families and advocates have raised concerns about poor living conditions and inadequate accommodation, combined with gruelling and often poorly paid work.

...[A] group of workers from Vanuatu...alleged they faced dangerous working conditions and were underpaid by a labour hire contractor. The firm involved, Agri Labour Australia....

A WorkSafe Victoria spokeswoman confirmed the agency looked into a death on a farm near Shepparton....

An Australian Workers Union...“remains very concerned about the treatment of migrant fruit pickers in the Goulburn Valley - especially around Shepparton” and is “working with the Victorian Government to try and improve accommodation and working conditions”... 

 

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Article
14 June 2018

Agri Labour Australia suspended from government scheme amid underpayment, unsafe work claims

Author: Sally Brooks, ABC

23 May 2018

The Federal Government has suspended labour hire company Agri Labour Australia from further recruitment under the Seasonal Worker Program, amid allegations the company underpaid labourers from Vanuatu working on a Victorian farm.

The allegations...claims...labourers...were exposed to dangerous working conditions and threatened while working at...farm, west of Shepparton.

...Agri Labour's managing director Casey Brown strenuously denied all the claims.

...[W]orkers claimed they were not being paid correctly, and had experienced "bleeding episodes" after breathing in chemicals on the farm.

...it was the understanding of his company that the workers were being paid appropriately by their employer...

Thousands of workers come to Australia from the Pacific each year to undertake seasonal work on farms across the country, hoping to earn good money to take home to their families.

Read the full post here