Smart Berries in Mundubbera are gearing up for their busiest period.
Smart Berries in Mundubbera are gearing up for their busiest period. Felicity Ripper

Rogue blueberry operators giving industry bad name

ROGUE operators underpaying workers must be weeded out of the blueberry industry says the president of the industry's national body in response to a study showing extensive underpayment of migrant workers.

The president of the Australian Blueberry Growers Association, Peter McPherson, was sure the majority of growers did the right thing by workers.

"Like any industry we have a few rogues who want to cut corners," he said. "Personally I would like to see the law come down hard on them and get them out of the business."

Mr McPherson was responding to a study by acadamics from UTS and the University of NSW that found an overwhelming number of international students and backpackers in Australia are subject to wage theft.

The report, Wage Theft in Silence, found fewer than one in 10 migrant workers took action to recover unpaid wages even though most know they are being underpaid.

"Our study confirms that Australia has a large, silent underclass of underpaid migrant workers," said senior law lecturer at UNSW, Bassina Farbenblum. "The scale of unclaimed wages is likely well over a billion dollars."

Mr McPherson said the blueberry industry was growing rapidly along the North Coast, including the Clarence Valley.

"The industry doesn't want to defend itself against these claims when its expanding so much," he said.

The blueberry and macadamia industries have been identified as two big growth sectors in local agriculture.

Both industries are central to continued growth in agriculture in the region.

However, heavy mechanisation of macadamia nut farming has slashed the need for workers, said the head of the Australian Macadamia Society, Jolyon Burnett.

"Because of mechanisation our use of labour is very low," Mr Burnett said. "For every 50ha of trees we would use the equivalent of one full time employee.

"What little labour we do need to use we source by word of mouth."

Despite industry claims of rogue operators giving it a bad name, the report suggests it was more widespread.

It was the first large-scale national survey of temporary migrant workers, with 4322 respondents from 107 countries working across all Australian states and territories. It is authored by Farbenblum and Laurie Berg, a senior law lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).

Migrant workers comprise up to 11 per cent of the Australian labour market. The authors' previous report in 2017 found most international students and backpackers are underpaid, with one in three earning about half the legal minimum wage.

The new report paints a bleak picture for the few who try to recover their unpaid wages. The study reported that for every 100 underpaid migrant workers, only three went to the Fair Work Ombudsman. Of those, well over half recovered nothing.

The authors conclude that for most migrant workers it is neither possible nor rational to try to claim their unpaid wages through the forums that currently exist.

"The system is broken," said Laurie Berg. "It is rational for most migrant workers to stay silent. The effort and risks of taking action aren't worth it, given the slim chance they'll get their wages back."

"There is a culture of impunity for wage theft in Australia. Unscrupulous employers continue to exploit migrant workers because they know they won't complain," said Ms Farbenblum.

The study dispels the popular assumption that few migrant workers would consider coming forward. In fact, though few had actually taken action, a majority (54 per cent) were open to trying to claim unpaid wages. The study identified the key barriers that prevented them from coming forward.

"The findings are deeply troubling but give cause for optimism, because they reveal a path forward," said Laurie Berg. "The study indicates that some of the most significant barriers to wage recovery can be practically addressed."

The most cited barriers were not knowing what to do and concerns about the amount of effort involved. However, more than a quarter said they would not speak up because of fears of losing their visa.

Migrant workers' reluctance to come forward was not explained by poor English or foreign culture. In fact, Asian migrants were most willing to come forward.

The report concludes that if processes and support services are improved, and immigration safeguards strengthened, more migrant workers would report and seek redress for wage theft in the future.

The authors observe that if Australia is to position itself as the destination of choice for international students and backpackers, reforms must be urgently implemented to prevent wage theft and enable migrant workers to report and recover unpaid wages.

They urge the government, the education sector and business to act swiftly to implement the report's recommendations.

The report is available at the Migrant Worker Justice Initiative (www.mwji.org). For further information on a new initiative by the education sector to address wage theft see https://www.mwji.org/international-students-in-australia.

About the survey:

. Anonymous, online survey of 4,322 people who worked in Australia on a temporary visa

. Available in 12 languages as well as English

. 2,392 respondents were international students; 1,705 were enrolled at a university and 523 at a vocational or English-language college

. 1,440 respondents were backpackers (Working Holiday Makers).

Migrant worker wage theft remains a major problem in Australia that requires urgent action according to Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, with a damning report released today identifying significant barriers for workers seeking to recover unpaid wages.

The report Wage Theft in Silence released today by the UNSW and UTS has identified that fewer than one in 10 migrant workers took action to recover underpaid wages, noting that for every 100 underpaid migrant workers only three went to the Fair Work Ombudsman and well over half recovered nothing.

Maurice Blackburn Employment Law Principal Giri Sivaraman said the report also identified that many workers knew they were being underpaid and wanted to do something about this, but felt they couldn't because of the difficulties and risks faced to recover unpaid wages.

"Today's report paints a damning picture of the systemic wage theft being experienced by too many migrant workers in Australia," Mr Sivaraman said.

"Of significant concern in this report is that a number of migrant workers indicated they knew they were being underpaid and wanted to act on this, but did not come forward because the barriers to seek help were too great, including potential implications for their visas if they did speak out.

"Until we address these issues Australia will continue to have a migrant worker exploitation crisis - there has been a lot of talk over many years now about these issues and it is well past time for action," he said.

Mr Sivaraman said state and federal governments must take note of the recommendations outlined in today's report, including calls to provide a greater level of legal support to migrant workers who have been underpaid as well as adoption of wider regulatory reforms.

"Today's report calls for a legislated firewall to be established between the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Department of Home Affairs to prevent the two agencies sharing information about potential visa contraventions when migrant workers seek help for wage theft," Mr Sivaraman said.

"We support this call, in many of the cases we have run for migrant workers this has been a key concern where we have had to seek visa amnesties so workers can come forward without their visas being impacted and it is evident that reforms to ensure greater protections in these circumstances is crucial.

"The report also recommends that states should establish greater accountability by introducing criminal offences for employers that knowingly and repeatedly engage in wage theft.

"We support this and have reiterated the need for similar measures as part of the current parliamentary inquiry into wage theft currently underway in Queensland, where we have called for a dedicated Wage Theft Act with penalties of up to $1 million and/or 10 years imprisonment for reckless and intentional conduct that sees employers exposing workers to wage theft," he said.

"Migration has been the bedrock of Australia's prosperity. It is a tragedy that the prosperity of our country is being exposed as built off the back of exploitation of vulnerable migrants," he said.

Media inquiries: Jacob O'Shaughnessy at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers on 0428 814 037



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