Agriculture Workers Win VT4 Million Case

Workers from a 2018 group hired by Agri-Labour Australia to pick tomatoes in Shepparton, who were found to be working for about $8.00 per hour. It's not known if any of these individuals will be receiving cash from this settlement.  Photo: Sydney Morning Herald.

Australia's Fair Work Commission has awarded 19 Ni Vanuatu agricultural workers over AUS $50,000 in a court-enforced decision against Brisbane-based Agri-Labour Australia Pty Ltd, which is headquartered in Brisbane.  

The company, according to a media release from the Fair Work Ombudsman, "has signed a Court-Enforceable Undertaking (EU) requiring it to pay $50,823 to 19 nationals of Vanuatu it employed under the Seasonal Worker Programme between December 2017 and April last year."

Ni Vanuatu workers have had other negative experiences with Agri-Labour Australia. In 2018, the Daily Post ran a story, originally from the Sydney Morning Herald, about a group of 50 seasonal workers who claimed to have been underpaid. 

A Shepparton News story from 2017—before these underpayments began—tells of a group of Ni Vanuatu workers who became so disenchanted that two of them went to the local newspaper to air their grievances. Three weeks later, they were among a group of five men who absconded and were forcibly repatriated by authorities. 

From the Fair Work media statement:

Fair Work Inspectors found that Agri-Labour was paying some workers a group piecework rate, based around a team’s quantity picked, despite the company’s enterprise agreement and piecework agreements providing for workers to be paid based on their individual productivity.

Agri-Labour admitted it could not determine if the amounts paid sufficiently compensated the workers as no records were kept of actual hours worked. It also admitted to incorrectly deducting money from wages for wet weather gear and making higher deductions than those authorised in writing.

Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said the EU sent a clear message to horticultural employers across the country to get piecework agreements right.

“Improving compliance across the horticulture industry is a priority for the Fair Work Ombudsman after our Harvest Trail Inquiry found widespread breaches of the Fair Work Act,” Ms Parker said.

“All horticultural businesses must be aware of how to lawfully pay their workers and, if using piece rates, ensure workers are paid in accordance with piecework agreements. We also advise that employers should keep accurate records of hours worked.”

“Under the Court-Enforceable Undertaking, Agri-Labour has committed to extensive measures aimed at sustained workplace compliance, and we will scrutinise their work practices for the next two years.”

Under the EU, Agri-Labour must pay pieceworkers based on individual productivity; keep a record of hours worked for each pieceworker; engage an external professional to complete two audits of the pay and conditions of employees; and commission workplace relations training for all persons who have responsibility for human resources, recruitment, on-site management and payroll functions.

Agri-Labour must ensure the piece rates paid are sufficient to allow an average competent employee to earn 15 per cent more than the minimum hourly rates provided by the enterprise agreement.

In addition to compensating its workers, with the largest individual payment of $4,591, Agri-Labour will make a $15,000 contrition payment to the Commonwealth Government Consolidated Revenue Fund.

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