Mushroom boss says he's in the dark over pay fight in court
ONE woman was paid $6.76 an hour and hundreds of her colleagues earned less than $11 an hour while employed to pick mushrooms at one of Queensland's biggest edible fungi growers.
And the companies involved tried to cover up the underpayments by sending mysterious mushroom picking data and using excuses like "we don't speak good English”, the Federal Court heard on Monday.
Brisbane Market supplier Troy Marland and his company, Marland Mushrooms Qld Pty Ltd, are on trial in Brisbane for allegedly under-paying 406 workers $646,000.
The Fair Work Ombudsman says the underpayments occurred over seven months in 2014.
Mr Marland contracted Tao Hu and her labour hire firm, HRS Country Pty Ltd, to provide pickers at his Stapylton business from January 2014 to August 2014.
Representing the Fair Work Ombudsman in the Federal Court on Monday, barrister Justin Bourke said Ms Hu admitted underpaying her employees while they were contracted to pick Mr Marland's product.
However, Mr Bourke said Mr Marland denied he knew what was happening and he and his company were therefore not liable.
Mr Bourke said two Fair Work inspectors met with Mr Marland and Ms Hu in February 2014 to explain to the business owners that the mushroom pickers' wages of 60-80 cents a kilogram picked was well short of the 91 cents a kilo they should have been earning.
This equated to an average of $11 an hour per worker when it should have been around $22.86 per hour.
Mr Bourke said one worker was paid $6.76 an hour during her 28-day stint on the farm and at no point did she ever earn the legal rate of pay.
"Troy Marland knew the rates being paid to his pickers were not meeting the requirements of the award,” Mr Bourke told the court.
"He knew this from February 2014 because he was told of these things by two Fair Work inspectors.
Mr Bourke said Mr Marland claimed he did not attend the meeting so he could not have known what his workers were earning.
"Both inspectors will say he was at the meeting and, unsavoury as it is, there is no room for error - you either know you were there or you weren't (there),” Mr Bourke said.
"There is no reason for the inspectors to make this up.”
Ms Hu and Mr Marland also claimed their "average competent” picker could collect more than 30kg of mushrooms an hour.
Mr Bourke told the court there was evidence the Marland Mushroom workers rarely met the industry standard of 25kg an hour.
Mr Bourke said the court would be shown an email between Marland Mushrooms manager David McEwan and Ms Hu in which he told her to pretend she didn't speak English very well to the Fair Work Ombudsman.
Mr Bourke read the email to the court.
"Hello Tao. I've attached a file with pick data (the amount of mushrooms picked by workers) for you to send,” Mr Bourke read to the court.
"Print the pages, then rescan and save on your computer before you send it on.
"Do not provide this email. Do not forward this email.
"It is not what (the inspectors) have asked for but it will serve its purpose.
"If they say 'This is not what we asked for' produce the 'We don't speak English good' excuse.”
Mr Bourke said it was "highly improbable” this email was sent without Mr Marland's knowledge.
"Marland Mushrooms knew they had cut corners on the award,” Mr Bourke told the court.
HRS Country Pty Ltd has since gone into liquidation.
The trial, before Judge Darryl Rangiah, continues.