Fair Work Ombudsman continues farm inspections

The Fair Work Ombudsman has continued to monitor workplace compliance in the agriculture sector with inspectors investigating more than 190 businesses in four states to ensure workers are getting the right pay.

As part of its two-year Agriculture Strategy, inspectors have since December inspected farms and orchards growing various types of crops in Coffs Harbour and Grafton in northern NSW; the Riverland region in South Australia; Wide Bay and Moreton Bay in Queensland; and North West Victoria. Inspectors were on alert for unlawful low rates of pay and record-keeping and payslip breaches.

Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said continuing to boost compliance among agriculture sector employers remained a priority for the agency.

“We are strategically targeting employers in 15 hot spot regions across two years where we have identified high risks of non-compliance,” Ms Parker said.

“This sector engages many vulnerable workers, such as migrants, who may be unaware of their rights or unwilling to speak up. We expect employers to meet their legal obligations to all their employees, including the minimum wage guarantee now in effect in the Horticulture Award.”

“Fair Work Inspectors will continue their site inspections this year and throughout 2023. Any employers who need assistance should contact the FWO for free advice and resources.”

In December 2021, inspectors conducted site inspections in Coffs Harbour and Grafton. Out of 33 businesses, 20 (61 per cent) were non-compliant with workplace laws. Of these, 11 breached record-keeping and payslip obligations, leading inspectors to issue Infringement Notices (fines) that totalled $19,594.

“Record-keeping is the bedrock of compliance and it is concerning that Inspectors have needed to issue nearly $20,000 in Infringement Notices for payslip and record-keeping breaches. We expect employers to get this right”, Ms Parker said.

In the Riverland, inspectors investigated 32 businesses in February and July this year and have so far issued seven Infringement Notices for $13,764, with the remaining investigations ongoing.

In June, site inspections occurred in the Wide Bay region, with 43 businesses investigated. Investigations continue and the regulator is looking closely at compliance with the minimum wage guarantee for pieceworkers, which took effect from the first pay period on or after 28 April 2022.

Similarly, inspectors investigated 48 businesses in the Moreton Bay region in July and August, with investigations continuing.

In North West Victoria last month, the regulator investigated more than 40 businesses in the Sunraysia region across various locations including Mildura, Irymple, Colignan, Red Cliffs and Robinvale. Investigations are ongoing. Inspectors identified potential issues including the use of group piece rates; lack of details on payslips and a lack of record-keeping; employees not being aware who their employer is; lack of clarity on superannuation; and overtime and casual loadings not being paid.

In key viticulture regions, the regulator investigated 19 businesses during the Autumn pruning season last year, including in Yarra Glen and Diggers Rest in Victoria, and in South Australia’s Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Riverland. In addition to cautioning businesses to ensure they remained compliant, a Compliance Notice recovered $257 for one employee.

In March this year during picking season, inspectors investigated a total of 35 viticulture businesses in Margaret River, Western Australia; Coonawarra, South Australia; and in the Yarra Valley in Victoria. They issued six Infringement Notices with fines totalling $22,200, with 16 investigations remaining active.

The Fair Work Ombudsman also has responsibility to enforce wages and entitlements under the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) Scheme, which this year combined what were the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) and Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP). In 2021-22, the FWO conducted 41 investigations of Approved Employers of the SWP, issued six Compliance Notices and recovered $78,303 for 528 workers. In the same period, the FWO completed audits for 206 PLS workers involving nine Approved Employers, issued six Compliance Notices and recovered $18,178 for 30 workers.

Fair Work Inspectors regularly present on-arrival briefings to new and returning recruits under the PALM Scheme that cover workplace entitlements in Australia.

In addition to all of the regulator’s proactive activities described above, the FWO investigated requests for assistance and recovered $77,969 for horticulture workers in 2021-22.

The Fair Work Ombudsman’s Agriculture Strategy began in December 2021 and was informed by engagement with sector stakeholders, including farmer and other employer representative bodies and unions. The FWO continues to consult regularly with these stakeholders.

The FWO’s Horticulture Showcase

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