Horticulture

Large fine for underpayment

By Country News

A stone fruit farm has been penalised $144000 for deliberately underpaying two Malaysian fruit pickers and using false records to try to cover it up.

Zucco Farming Pty Ltd, which operates a stone fruit farm at Woorinen near Swan Hill, has been penalised $120000 and the company’s sole director and part-owner Chris Zucco has been penalised a further $24000, by the Federal Circuit Court.

The affected employees were Malaysian nationals on bridging visas when they were paid unlawfully low, flat rates for work performed at the farm in 2015 and 2016.

A man aged in his early 20s and his father-in-law were underpaid a total of $13529.

Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said the regulator was cracking down on migrant worker exploitation in the horticulture industry.

‘‘The deliberate and systematic underpayment of two vulnerable workers is precisely the sort of conduct we are targeting and trying to stamp out in the horticulture industry,’’ Ms Parker said.

‘‘If blatant breaches of workplace laws occurred today, the maximum penalties that can applied in court can be up to 10 times higher under the Protecting Vulnerable Workers laws.’’

Fair Work Ombudsman inspectors investigated Zucco Farming after receiving requests for assistance from the two workers.

The workers were paid flat hourly rates between $15.41 and $16.77 by Zucco Farming for all hours worked to pick fruit and perform pruning, packing and cleaning duties.

Under the Horticulture Award 2010 at the time, the workers were entitled to minimum ordinary rates, including casual loading, of $21.61, except for public holidays when they were entitled to $38.90 per hour.

When one of them queried Mr Zucco as to why their pay slips listed a rate of $21 an hour and asked to be paid lawful rates, Mr Zucco informed them: ‘‘I am not paying you $21 ... I do that just for my bookwork.’’

Mr Zucco and his company also breached workplace laws by knowingly providing false and misleading records to inspectors that understated the number of hours worked by the employees and overstated the rate of pay of the employees.

This gave the appearance that the two workers had been paid higher hourly rates than was actually the case.

Judge Anthony Kelly found that Mr Zucco and Zucco Farming had ‘‘made deliberate and conscious decisions to underpay the employees’’ and had ‘‘persistently attempted to deceive the FWO’’.

In addition to imposing the penalties, Judge Kelly has ordered Zucco Farming to display a workplace notice with details including key employee entitlements under the Horticulture Award 2010 and how to access the FWO’s Record My Hours app.