Blueberry pickers at a farm in Middle Boambee.
Blueberry pickers at a farm in Middle Boambee.

Picking conditions under investigation in Coffs region

THE Australian Workers Union has confirmed it is conducting an investigation into possible workplace breaches in the horticultural industry in the Coffs Harbour region.

The union would not provide any further details, as the investigation is currently underway, but confirmed it was taking place after Berries Australia accused the union of making 'unsubstantiated allegations' about the industry.

"If the AWU has any evidence of illegal behaviour they should provide this to the Fair Work Ombudsman and where appropriate local law enforcement," Berries Australia Chair Peter McPherson wrote in a letter to the Editor. 

RELATED: Appalling picker conditions the 'elephant in the room'

Earlier in the month the AWU commented on a recommendation that the Federal Government should introduce a 'Gap Year at Home' program to encourage school and university graduates to spend time doing agricultural and horticultural work.

AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton branded it a "cute idea" that deliberately ignores the elephant in the room.

"There are now a million Australians searching for work. We don't need exotic branded schemes to entice them into horticulture, we just need farms to obey the law," Mr Walton said.

Blueberry pickers at a Corindi farm.
Blueberry pickers at a Corindi farm.

The rapid growth of intensive farming, particularly for blueberries, means an influx of pickers during the peak of the season.

But according to the AWU this has led to exploitation of a vulnerable workforce.

The AWU says many farms on the mid north coast use "dodgy labour hire companies" to employ workers to pick their produce, who then charge excessive accommodation and transport costs which once they take out of their weekly wage, leaves workers with little if anything to live on.

"It's a rort. The AWU has seen inside some of these shipping containers, sheds and homes around the Coffs Harbour region that workers are expected to live in. They're often packed in like sardines, yet charged well above what you would expect for such low standards," Mr Walton said.

But Berries Australia hit back at these claims and also accused Advocate editor Janine Watson of pursuing a "relentlessly negative narrative" about local farmers and in particular the $350 million local berry industry.

Berries Australia Chair Peter McPherson says the majority of farmers do the right thing.

RELATED: Berries Australia says majority of farmers do right thing

But some Advocate readers, including Tony Judge, have urged industry groups like Berries Australia to tackle the problem of 'rogue farmers'.

RELATED: Berry industry should 'weed out' rogue farmers