$30,000 repaid to migrant farm workers highlights need to end exploitation

The AWU has reclaimed $30,000 from two seasonal migrant workers in a large rural Victorian packhouse, reaffirming the union’s commitment to fighting exploitation in Australia’s horticulture industry.

Both workers were employed as cleaners and worked the afternoon shift each day, until midnight, for over two years, paid at Level 1 of the Horticulture Award – $21.38 per hour at the time. However, the employer failed to pay weekend and evening penalty rates, overtime, or shift allowances.

The AWU was first alerted to the wage theft by Nauru-born worker Agassi, who mentioned to his organiser during a crib-room visit that he was only paid a flat hourly rate. After reviewing his payslips and meeting with the employer, AWU Organiser Shenae was able to secure a full repayment to Agassi and his colleague – about $15,000 each.

Agassi was unaware of the extensive wage theft, as a recent migrant to Australia – something Shenae believes was intentional.

“Everyone knows the company is dodgy,” she explains. “and it’s really hard for PALM workers to understand their rights and entitlements and how the Horticulture Award works. Almost no other country in the Pacific has the same wage system with penalties and overtime.”

Stories like Agassi’s have been come all too common. Despite securing a minimum wage for piece-rate workers in 2021, the AWU still frequently encounters the exploitation of PALM and seasonal workers in the horticultural industry, including underpayments, excessive deductions, and overcrowded, substandard accommodation.

To It combat the scale of abuse, the AWU formed the Retail Supply Chain Alliance (RSCA) in 2019 – a partnership with the SDA and TWU to establish an ethical supply chain and enforce legal employment standards on Australia’s farms, packhouses, transport, and supermarkets.

The RSCA has been able to put real pressure on employers to lift their game by establishing accords with Coles and then Woolworths. Shenae says the Alliance is critical to organising in the horticultural sector.

“Having Coles attend an RSCA event on Swan Hill made a huge difference,” she says. “They got to speak to workers first-hand about what was going on, without the employer stepping in and glossing over any issues, which was really valuable.”

“It’s not just us trying to enforce standards anymore – now the supermarkets are holding growers accountable.”

As well as enforcing minimum standards across the country, the AWU has pushed to strengthen the PALM scheme to provide protections and support to migrant workers. These recent changes include a minimum guaranteed 30 hours of work per week averaged over a month, a minimum weekly take-home pay of $200 a week, and a low hour safety net so that no PALM workers can be charged for their accommodation and travel if they are offered less than 20 hours of work per week.

AWU National Secretary Paul Farrow says the changes are a necessity for the horticultural industry. “Workers in Australia deserve to be paid Australian wages and entitlements,” he says.

“When we welcome our neighbours in the Pacific to come and work on our farms, and pick and pack the fruit and veg that ends up on our dinner table, we have a responsibility to provide decent wages and conditions.”

“The widespread exploitation and abuse we have seen on Australian farms has got to stop, and the AWU is taking every effort to both enforce minimum standards and make the PALM scheme fairer for workers.”

In Mildura, Agassi has since found a new job – that pays his full wages and entitlements. He reckons without the AWU, he’d never have known he was underpaid, and wouldn’t know how to fight for his entitlements.

It’s important to speak up, he says. Any horticulture worker who needs it should seek the AWU’s support – and not to worry about bosses. “The union is here to help!” He says. “If you’re afraid of letting your boss know you’ve joined the union, they’ll handle everything.”

“My advice? It’s just join the union!”

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