North West Victorian farms checked for underpayments

The Fair Work Ombudsman has made surprise inspections of agriculture businesses in North West Victoria to check workers are getting the right pay.

Over two weeks, Fair Work Inspectors targeted farms and labour hire companies in the Sunraysia region, with about 30 businesses inspected across various locations including Mildura, Irymple, Colignan, Red Cliffs and Robinvale.

The regulator acted after receiving intelligence from a range of sources, including anonymous reports, indicating potential underpayments of employees in the region’s agriculture sector. The farms inspected grow a range of produce including almonds, avocadoes, citrus fruits, garlic, grapes and mushrooms.

Acting Fair Work Ombudsman Michael Campbell said continuing to boost compliance among agriculture sector employers remained a priority for the agency.

“These inspections are focused on holding employers to account if they are not meeting their obligations, and we will take enforcement action where appropriate. We also act to ensure employers understand their legal responsibilities, including record-keeping which is the bedrock of compliance, and the minimum wage guarantee for pieceworkers,” Mr Campbell said.

“This sector engages many vulnerable workers, such as backpackers, other migrants and those with limited English skills, who are particularly at risk of exploitation as they’re often unaware of their rights or unwilling to speak up. We work hard to ensure workers understand their rights.”

“Employers who need assistance meeting their obligations should contact the FWO directly for free advice. We also urge workers with concerns about their wages and entitlements to reach out to us, including via an anonymous report if they prefer.”

Inspectors spoke with business owners, managers and employees on the ground, and requested records. They were on alert for low rates of pay that breached the Horticulture Award, including with regard to piece rates; record-keeping and payslip breaches; and contraventions of the National Employment Standards including failure to provide the Fair Work Information Statement.

Investigations continue and results will be published at a later date.

The investigations are part of the regulator’s Agriculture Strategy which began in December 2021. Under the strategy, the FWO will target more than 300 businesses in 15 ‘hot spot’ regions over two years where there are identified high risks of non-compliance. Industry sectors being investigated include viticulture, horticulture, meat processing and agriculture.

Where breaches warrant court action, a court can order penalties of up to $13,320 per contravention for an individual and $66,600 per contravention for companies. Maximum penalties are 10-times higher if a court determines breaches were serious contraventions under the Protecting Vulnerable Workers laws.

The FWO’s Horticulture Showcase

/Public Release. View in full here.