“We need to root out these rotten operators who have been able to get away with exploiting their workers for years” says the AWU who is calling for a Royal Commission.
“We need to root out these rotten operators who have been able to get away with exploiting their workers for years” says the AWU who is calling for a Royal Commission.

Pollies tinkering around the edges of berry industry: unions

Local politicians have been accused of simply tinkering around the edges in their response to the damning Blue Harvest report which uncovered widespread underpayment and labour exploitation in the Coffs Harbour blueberry industry.

Researchers spent 12 weeks in the region, gathering data and stories from blueberry workers employed during the 2020 picking season. They found that some were paid as little as $7 a bucket to pick low-quality fruit - the equivalent of $3 an hour.

The report, released on December 4 was conducted by the The McKell Institute and sponsored by The Retail Supply Chain Alliance unions, and has prompted calls for a Royal Commission.

But both Federal and State politicians have rejected the idea.

Coffs Harbour MP Gurmesh Singh says there is no reason to have an "expensive and time consuming" Royal Commission when the main problems - unscrupulous labour hiring firms in particular - have already been identified.

He has proposed a nationwide licensing scheme to help address the problems.

Mr Singh also claims many of the issues raised in the report fall under the responsibility of the Federal Government.

"Most of the issues fall under the federal sphere unfortunately. Visas are a federal matter," Mr Singh said.

"And again employment law and enforcement are responsibilities of the Federal Government through the Fair Work Ombudsman - full stop.

"There's a reason we have three different levels of government because they do three different things."

Gurmesh Singh, former chairman of Oz Group, photographed with David Littleproud (second from left) in 2018 before he became Coffs Harbour MP.
Gurmesh Singh, former chairman of Oz Group, photographed with David Littleproud (second from left) in 2018 before he became Coffs Harbour MP.

The Advocate put the question of a Royal Commission to Federal Member for Cowper Pat Conaghan whose office referred it to the Federal Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management and Deputy Leader of the National Party David Littleproud.

"The Government at this stage doesn't believe that a Royal Commission is required or warranted," Mr Littleproud said.

He says the Federal Government has provided significant additional resources to the Fair Work Ombudsman to investigate and penalise businesses doing the wrong thing.

Despite their claims a Royal Commission is unnecessary, The Australian Workers' Union is pushing on with their campaign.

"The Retail Supply Chain Alliance has uncovered serious cases of worker exploitation that can only be fixed by having a Royal Commission," National Secretary Daniel Walton said.

"What Minister Littleproud and Coffs Harbour MP Singh are proposing will do nothing more than just tinker around the edges and the industry will continue to underpay and abuse workers for years to come.

"The unions have presented clear evidence that there is a widespread problem in the fruit and vegetable industry. But there are solutions. For starters we need tougher penalties and more powers given to unions like the AWU who can undertake investigations into worker exploitation."

Blueberry picking underway.
Blueberry picking underway.

 

Mr Walton said it's time to take action.

"We need to root out these rotten operators who have been able to get away with exploiting their workforce for years."

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"It's high time we start paying workers proper and fair wages. The Retail Supply Chain Alliance found that some workers in the Coffs Harbour area were paid as little as $3 an hour which is slave labour."

The AWU says that with wages this low, it's little wonder farmers can't find Australian workers to pick fruit and vegetables during the pandemic.

"Farmers know who the rotten operators are and should be working with the unions to identify them and put an end to their exploitation.

"If we can do that then there's a willing workforce out there for the taking. Australians aren't afraid of hard work; they just want to be paid properly for it."