Dozens of migrant farm workers from Vanuatu have won an important settlement after taking legal action for gross underpayment and mistreatment.
The settlement comes after The Sunday Age revealed in May 2018 that 50 workers from Vanuatu had worked in shocking conditions on a farm near Shepparton, while earning a pittance under the Federal government’s Seasonal Worker Program.
Some workers reported bleeding from the nose and ears after chemical exposure while picking tomatoes at the farm and said they earned as little as $8 an hour
The legal claim was backed by the National Union of Workers and brought against Brisbane-based labour hire company Agri Labour Australia.
As part of the settlement the workers who brought the claim released a brief statement saying they took legal action because they had been underpaid and threatened by an agent from Vanuatu.
“While Agri Labour does not admit the allegations, the applicants have settled these claims on acceptable monetary terms and also achieved rights to return to work in Australia at a future date under the Seasonal Worker Program,” the statement said.
Financial details of the settlement were not disclosed and the NUW and Agri Labour declined to comment further.
The original claim for repayment and penalties had been worth up to $10 million. It was expected any settlement would be significantly less than that.
The workers had been employed at MCG Fresh Produce farm west of Shepparton, for just four months.
The case was significant as the claim was brought against Agri Labour under the Protecting Vulnerable Workers amendments to the Fair Work Act.
Those amendments were introduced by the Turnbull government in response to a series of wage scandals in Australia, and they allow for massive penalties for breaches.
There has been ongoing litigation between the NUW and Agri Labour, and the company settled an earlier claim involving five workers at the same farm for a total of $150,000.
One of the workers who led that claim was Tulia Roqara who had spoken out publicly about conditions on the farm.
In that earlier claim – settled last year – Ms Roqara alleged she was underpaid as much as $11,000 for four months work through underpayment and unlawful deductions from her pay by Agri Labour.
“The most important thing, it’s not all about the money,” she said at that time. “[It’s] that we have the same rights Australians have.”
The case has drawn attention to the federal government’s Seasonal Worker Program, an important part of Australia’s outreach in the Pacific and Timor-Leste.
It provides farms with access to labour while workers earn award wages far beyond what they could earn at home, providing an important economic boost to small Pacific countries.
The Agri Labour workers were paid piece rates, where payment is based on how much you pick.
The horticulture award says an average competent employee should earn 15 per cent more than the minimum hourly rate in the award for piece work. That should be more than $25 an hour for a casual. Instead the workers allege, they received far lower pay rates.
The Fair Work Ombudsman separately took action against Agri Labour. As part of an enforceable undertaking Agri Labour was required to pay $50,823 to 19 workers.
The federal government’s Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business confirmed that Agri Labour had been terminated as an approved employer under the seasonal program.
The department spokeswoman said it made that decision as it took “matters concerning breaches of laws and the correct payment of seasonal workers very seriously.”