Australian officials clamping down on exploitation of backpackers

by Ray Clancy on January 20, 2015

in Jobs in Australia

The Fair Work Ombudsman in Australia has issued a warning to growers, hostel owners and labour hire contractors that it will not tolerate the deliberate exploitation of backpackers and seasonal workers this summer.

The Agency has received fresh complaints about backpackers being lured to regional centres by dodgy labour hire operators, allegedly treating them poorly, bullying and sexually harassing them and ripping them off to the tune of hundreds of dollars.

Backpackers and seasonal workers are advised not to enter into work arrangements with people they meet at regional airports or bus depots

It is reviewing fresh reports against one operator who allegedly charges backpackers $450 to find them jobs, and then pays them as little as 60 cents an hour to work on local farms. The operator reportedly charges up to $150 a week for backpackers to stay in sub-standard houses and caravans, with allegations of up to 32 people being accommodated in one home and 12 more sleeping in the garage.

Backpackers and seasonal workers are advised not to enter into work arrangements with people they meet at regional airports or bus depots and not to respond to questionable adverts where there is only a first name and a mobile number.

“These people will approach you with promises of guaranteed work picking fruit or vegetables and accommodation and transport. If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is,” said O’Shea.

They should also be aware that they should receive at least $21.08 an hour on a casual hourly basis and keep a diary of hours worked, the places where they work and the type of work they are doing.

“Enjoy your working holiday in Australia and remember that the growers rely on visitors such as yourself to harvest their crops but they should treat you well and make sure you are not exploited,” added O’Shea.

The Fair Work Ombudsman is currently running two programmes aimed at protecting the rights of overseas and seasonal workers and ensuring employers, hostel owners and labour hire operators understand and comply with their obligations.

A three year Harvest Trail initiative by the Agency’s Regional Services Team is reviewing compliance within the fruit and vegetable growing industry across Australia as a result of persistent complaints and underpayments in the horticulture sector.

Simultaneously, the Overseas Worker’s Team is conducting a yearlong review of the wages and conditions of overseas workers in Australia on the 417 Working Holiday visa following a spike in complaints from backpackers over the past three years.

The Fair Work Ombudsman often receives complaints regarding sub-standard accommodation, or accommodation that is crowded and unliveable and these complaints are referred to local authorities such as the police, councils or even the fire service. Other issues include providers gouging or inflating expenses, such as transport.

In some cases, the Fair Work Ombudsman has encountered situations where a person is virtually bonded to a particular provider on the basis that they have been told that they will not have their visa extensions signed unless they “see out the season with them”. These situations are often able to be addressed in conjunction with the local police and Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP).

The most common issue encountered by the Fair Work Ombudsman is in relation to rates of pay or piece work agreements. Often this relates to piece work agreements that do not provide a person with the opportunity, or ability, to pick the required amount of fruit to make at least more than the casual hourly rate under the Horticulture Award. The current hourly rate for a casual fruit or vegetable picker under the Horticulture Award is $21.08.

A piece work agreement, which must be provided to the worker in writing, needs to be set at a rate that would allow an average competent worker to pick enough to earn 15% above the hourly rate.

“We hold the growers responsible for ensuring that people working on their farms, whether directly employed or via a labour hire provider, are receiving the correct entitlements. Growers should have alarm bells ringing if someone offers to provide them with labour for less than $21 an hour,” said OíShea.

“Growers who are doing the wrong thing need to be aware that they can be held liable, as an accessory under the Fair Work Act, if they knowingly enter into sub-standard and illegal arrangements with unscrupulous operators,” he explained.

He added that hostel owners and operators should be aware they may be held liable if they enter into contracts with dodgy labour hire companies and then bond the backpacker to their hostel by only allowing the backpacker to work with that labour hire company.

“If hostel operators involve themselves with payments to backpackers through these questionable operators, they too may find themselves liable as an accessory if they knowingly enter into sub-standard and illegal arrangements,” he said.


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