Growers defend employment record

By Geoff Adams

Fruit and vegetable growers are sick of having a bad reputation for illegal employment and want stronger rules to ensure the whole industry complies with the law.

The Australian Fresh Produce Alliance released data in August showing its members employed more than 22,000 people across 100 sites, while their suppliers employ an additional 25,000 workers.

Chief executive Michael Rogers said his members wanted to comply with employment laws and ethical employment standards.

"We are focused on improving the sector's employment practices and reputation," he said on August 20.

The fruit and vegetable growing industry has been under fire for underpaying workers and exploiting backpackers and other seasonal workers from Pacific nations.

The new Modern Slavery Act reporting requirements mean Australian companies now have to make clear where there are risks of slavery in their supply chains.

In 2014 illegal workers were discovered living in substandard conditions at fruit and vegetable markets in Perth's north, while in 2015 young backpackers were paid an average of just $2 an hour to work at a Northern Territory mango business.

Mr Rogers said while fruit and vegetable growers were working on doing the right thing, laws should be changed if labour-hire companies refused to do the same.

"While farmers are working to meet all requirements, it is also essential that consistent regulation and certification of labour-hire companies is implemented," he said.

"This will make sure all industry players are meeting the required standards.

"It should be accompanied by an increase in the number of approved third-party auditors to ensure compliance."

In July, a Queensland labour-hire company was fined $84,000 for failing to keep proper records for overseas workers on a strawberry farm.

Data from alliance members shows 12,379 working holiday-makers are employed in the industry, along with 2924 employees on the seasonal worker program. A further 5717 Australian citizens are employed in full-time roles.

"Due to the time-sensitive and seasonal nature of harvesting fresh produce, it is vitally important that growers have access to a workforce that is mobile and readily available," Mr Rogers said.