Underpaid blueberry pickers forced to work 36 days straight

WORKERS on a Coffs Coast blueberry farm were forced to work 36 days straight by their labour hire syndicate employer.

The workers, who were recruited from Vanuatu, were also underpaid more than $14,700 according to a Fair Work Ombudsman.  

The 26 employees, of whom  many spoke little English, were recruited by Melbourne-based Seasonal Labour Solutions Pty Ltd last year.  

Border Force and the Federal Police this week conducted searches in Woolgoolga related to another labour hire syndicate, which the Fair Work Ombudsman is now investigating.  

The searches resulted in 34 illegal Malaysian workers being detained ready for deportation.  

The Vanuatu workers were 416 visa-holders sent to work on a blueberry farm at Crossmaglen, west of Bonville, between September last year and January this year.  

Apart from being short-changed the penalty rates they were entitled to on public holidays under their piece work agreements, the employees were denied appropriate rest breaks when they worked 36 consecutive days from September 29 to November 2, stopping work intermittently when rain interrupted harvesting.  

Seasonal Labour Solutions, which recruited the workers under the Seasonal Worker Program, has signed a workplace pact aimed at encouraging behavioural change and future compliance with its federal workplace obligations.  

Fair Work inspectors discovered the underpayments and breaches of the National Employment Standards in relation to maximum weekly hours when they audited work practices on the farm in December last year, as part of the agency's national Harvest Trail Inquiry into the horticulture and viticulture sectors.  

On the Crossmaglen blueberry farm, Fair Work inspectors discovered Seasonal Labour Solutions had not complied with a requirement under the Horticulture Award to pay employees double piece rate penalties on the public holidays that fell during their employment, including Christmas Day.  

This led to the workers being underpaid a total of $14,720.  

The largest underpayment of an individual worker was $770.  

Seasonal Labour Solutions has co-operated with the Fair Work Ombudsman's investigation and back-paid the workers in full.  

The company has entered into an Enforceable Undertaking with the Fair Work Ombudsman and will engage an external professional to audit its compliance with workplace laws and report on the results. 

Seasonal Labour Solutions will also register with the Fair Work Ombudsman's My Account portal and demonstrate it has developed systems for staying up to date with minimum entitlements applicable under the Horticulture Award.

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