Taskforce to target worker exploitation, visa fraud following ‘slave labour’ revelations
The Federal Government has confirmed it will form a taskforce to target visa fraud, following revelations foreign workers are being exploited by unscrupulous labour hire contractors.
It comes as Woolworths executives this morning told a Senate hearing they believed they had a “moral”, but not legal, responsibility to underpaid farm workers.
Earlier this month, the ABC’s Four Corners program revealed contractors were preying on highly vulnerable young foreigners and subjecting them to brutal working hours, degrading living conditions and massive underpayment of wages.
A spokesman for Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Michaelia Cash today said a multi-agency taskforce would be created to “stamp out” illegal practices.
“We will be working with the Fair Work Ombudsman and other regulatory agencies to join them into the taskforce to ensure that matters involving visa fraud and worker conditions and entitlements are investigated swiftly,” a statement read.
“The message is clear: by hiring illegal workers, businesses are risking more than their profits.
“They risk their livelihood, and are gambling with a possible criminal conviction.”
Nationals MP Keith Pitt welcomed the formation of the multi-agency taskforce, saying he regularly received complaints ranging from the underpayment and sexual exploitation of workers to tax evasion, visa breaches and racial discrimination from his rural electorate.
He said he had held a stakeholder forum in Brisbane last year on the issue with Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan.
“Stakeholders wanted real action,” he said.
“They said there needed to be greater enforcement of existing laws and greater cooperation between the many relevant agencies, across all three levels of Government.”
Meanwhile, Victoria’s Regional Development Minister today told a budget estimates hearing she had frozen a Government grant to a company involved in the scandal.
Jaala Pulford told the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee that a $1.5 million grant awarded to salad and vegetable grower Covino Farms in 2013 was on hold.
“I will be making no further payment to Covino Farms until and unless I am satisfied that Covino Farms have complied with their legal and contractual employment responsibilities,” Ms Pulford said.
Woolworths says it has no legal responsibility
Earlier today, Woolworths said it did not know of any legal obligation to ensure farm workers are not exploited, but that it did have a moral one.
Appearing before a Senate inquiry into Australia’s temporary work visa program in Melbourne, Woolworths said it was not up to it to enforce the law.
The head of corporate responsibility at Woolworths, Armineh Mardirossian, was asked whether Woolworths has a legal obligation to make sure conditions and wages are being met.
“We expect that they are met. I’m not a legal expert, so I really can’t answer that question,” Ms Mardirossian said.
The company’s head of trade relations, Ian Dunn, indicated the company took some responsibility, even if it was not a legal one.
“We would certainly agree that we have a moral responsibility to ensure that suppliers to us first of all understand the conditions on which we’re willing to accept supply and to trade with them and then, secondly, to ensure that they’re aware that they need to live up to those standards,” Mr Dunn said.
The responsibility was covered by the Woolworths’ ethical sourcing policy.
Ms Mardirossian told the inquiry that, under that policy, Australia was regarded as a low-risk country for worker exploitation and that meant the Woolworths ethical auditing program did not apply to Australian companies.
“The audit program applies to countries that we view as high risk or moderate risk and that’s based on all the analytics that’s available from very good sources,” she said, adding that it was not necessary to review that either.
Woolworths is yet to have a meeting with the National Union of Workers to discuss the issues.
Union organiser George Robertson told the inquiry supermarkets can do more.
“Our position is that every single thing that makes it onto the shelves of Woolworths and Coles or any other supermarket should be guaranteed to be produced ethically,” Mr Robertson said.
He said the union wanted federal legislation to create a licensing system and greater regulation for labour hire companies.
More than 180,000 people were granted a working holiday, or 417 visa, last financial year.