The Fair Work Ombudsman’s national inquiry into exploitation of overseas workers on the Australian harvest trail has led to the agency launching legal action against a Queensland labour-hire operator for allegedly flouting record-keeping laws.
Facing the Federal Circuit Court are labour-hire company HTA Farmings and company manager Tuan Anh Le.
The Fair Work Ombudsman alleges that despite being previously cautioned, HTA Farmings committed serious contraventions of record-keeping laws relating to 265 employees it had supplied to pick and pack strawberries at a Stanthorpe farm.
Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James said the seriousness of the alleged contraventions and the company’s failure to take action after being formally cautioned for similar non-compliance in 2013 and earlier in 2015 were a factor in deciding to commence litigation.
‘‘It is completely unacceptable for an employer to fail to keep records of the hours their employees work and what they are paid,’’ Ms James said.
‘‘We provide free advice and resources to assist employers to understand and comply with their record-keeping obligations.’’
Fair Work Ombudsman inspectors attempted to conduct a full audit of HTA Farmings in 2015 as part of its national Harvest Trail Inquiry aimed at improving compliance in the horticulture industry.
The FWO alleges a lack of basic records of hours worked prevented its inspectors from checking whether almost all employees were being paid their minimum lawful entitlements.
Ms James called for major national employers to be proactive about ensuring workers involved in their supply chains were not being exploited.
‘‘Increasingly, if we find a business underpaying workers and that business is part of a supply chain, we are looking to the top, because the business at the top of the supply chain is the price-maker and controls the settings,’’ she said.
‘‘We are conscious many fruit pickers are overseas workers, who may be vulnerable if they are not fully aware of their rights. They are also reluctant to complain or face language barriers.’’
Underpayments of entitlements could be calculated for just six of the 265 employees identified, with inspectors determining the workers had been underpaid a total of $316, which has now been mostly back-paid.
The FWO further claims HTA Farmings allegedly contravened pay slip laws and failed to have piece work agreements in place for employees paid piece rates.
HTA Farmings faces penalties of up to $51000 per contravention and Mr Le faces maximum penalties of up to $10200 per contravention.
A directions hearing was listed for February 13 in the Federal Circuit Court in Brisbane.