strawberry pickers
Farm workers pick strawberries in the early morning fog on a farm in Rancho Santa Fe, California, United States August 31, 2016. Reuters/Mike Blake

The Fair Work Ombudsman has encouraged horticulture businesses to provide a written piecework agreement for backpackers they would employ. The agreement would ensure the backpackers to pick enough to earn 15 percent above the hourly minimum. The agency said that it fully recognised the importance of piece rate arrangements to the horticulture sector.

Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James reminded business operators employing backpackers to be wary of the offerings from labour-hire providers. “As one can reasonably assume the labour-hire provider is taking a cut of the agreement with the grower, the question growers need to ask is ‘how much are the workers receiving,” James said in a statement. “Growers should ensure that people working on their farms, whether directly employed or via a labour-hire provider, are receiving their correct entitlements."

James encourages business operators to inform the agency for suspicious low-rate offerings from the labour-hire provider. She said that there were some dodgy providers that set very low piece rates that workers could impossibly earn the minimum rate. She described it as the exploitation of young and said that it was totally unacceptable. “Growers should ensure that people working on their farms, whether directly employed or via a labour-hire provider, are receiving their correct entitlements. Growers and hostel operators who enter into contracts with unscrupulous labour-hire companies can be held liable, as an accessory under the Fair Work Act, if they knowingly enter into sub-standard and illegal arrangements,” Jame said.

It was a common scenario in a regional airport or bus station that backpackers were approached by labour-hire providers offering work, accommodation and transport. The backpackers were asked to provide money in advance for accommodation and transport costs and bond.

The ombudsman said that the agency recognised the important role played by labour-hire providers. She commended and supported the National Farmers Federation and the Recruitment and Consulting Services Association for developing a certification scheme for labour providers. The certification aimed to ensure that labour-hired workers were being paid their lawful entitlements.

“As part of the FWO’s commitment to assisting growers and workers in this important sector, the FWO has recently partnered with Growcom through the Agency’s Community Engagement Grant Program. This partnership will see Growcom working with the FWO and within its own network to educate and assist growers that ensure workers in the industry are receiving the right entitlements,” James said. The agency promised to continue several initiatives that would ensure employers and labour-hire operators understand and comply with their obligations. It also aimed to protect the rights of overseas and seasonal workers.