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'We have the same rights': Exploited migrant workers win big payouts

The Sydney Morning Herald, Vanuatu, 14 October 2018 - Migrant farm workers from Vanuatu have won a significant financial settlement after a landmark legal claim that used new laws designed to protect vulnerable workers from exploitation.

 

 

 

 

In May, Fairfax Media revealed 50 workers from Vanuatu had worked in shocking conditions on a farm near Shepparton, and had earned as little as $8 an hour.

Some workers reported bleeding from the nose and ears after chemical exposure while picking tomatoes at the farm.

Five of those workers took the initial legal action against Brisbane-based Agri Labour Australia and have now settled for a combined $150,000.

That’s more than twice the amount they had alleged they were underpaid during their four months work at the MCG Fresh Produce farm, west of Shepparton.

The settlement avoided a lengthy court case and possible penalties of millions of dollars for Agri Labour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tulia Roqara, one of the five workers who brought the claim, said she was happy about the result but wanted it extended to all the workers who were underpaid at the farm.

Her family had said her claim had little chance and was a ''dream''.

''Back in Vanuatu we don’t claim for these big amounts, to them it’s a dream,'' she said.

''The most important thing, it’s not all about the money ... (it's about) that we have the same rights Australians have.''

Ms Roqara said she would use her compensation –  a significant sum in Vanuatu – to set up a pastry shop and potentially a retreat for honeymooners.

Agri Labour’s managing director Casey Brown said the settlement was ''made on the basis of no admission of liability'' and to avoid a costly trial.

Mr Brown said they had a "strong wish" to fight the claim and "clear the name of our family operated business".

"Their offer was far less than our expected legal costs and we had to weigh up our options."

He said Agri Labour still "categorically deny that any workers were exploited or treated unfairly".

Mr Brown blamed the five workers, saying that Agri Labour had tried help them pick faster but they had "repeatedly refused to adopt the correct picking techniques".

Their results were "inconsistent" with an average competent picker of tomatoes, he said.

Holding Redlich partner Charles Power, who represented the workers, said it was a ''huge win'' for these ''brave seasonal workers''.

"We are now preparing to file a similar case for an additional group of Agri Labour workers who will be seeking unpaid wages and penalties."

That could result in a far larger settlement because it involves a bigger group of workers. Mr Brown did not comment directly on that new claim.

The case has drawn attention to the federal government’s Seasonal Worker Program, an important part of Australia’s outreach in the Pacific and Timor-Leste.

It provides farms with access to labour while workers earn award wages far beyond what they could make at home, providing a big economic boost to small Pacific countries.

It comes as a National Party bid for a new visa for farm workers has been shelved indefinitely, amid reported concerns from Pacific nations about its effect on the existing seasonal workers program.

After Fairfax Media's report, Agri Labour was suspended by the federal government from bringing new workers to Australia under the seasonal program.

The federal government's Department of Jobs and Small Business confirmed on Friday it remains suspended.

The Coalition’s Protecting Vulnerable Workers amendments to the Fair Work Act allow for massive penalties against employers that breach them.

They were introduced about a year ago after a series of wage scandals in Australia. Penalties are up to 10 times higher than previously.

The case brought by the workers from Vanuatu is thought to be the first legal action that used these laws.

Additional legal action against Agri Labour is also underway amid allegations of threats against the Vanuatuan workers.

National Union of Workers national secretary Tim Kennedy said workers should not be ''subject to threats or intimidation for raising concerns with a government agency about their pay or rights.''

Mr Kennedy welcomed the financial settlement and said it was a ''significant win'' for workers '"who have taken a stand against wage theft".

The Agri Labour workers were paid piece rates, where payment is based on how much you pick.

The horticulture award says an average competent employee should earn 15 per cent more than the minimum hourly rate in the award for piece work.

That should be more than $25 an hour for a casual. Instead the workers allege, they received far lower pay rates.

 

 

 

 

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/business/workplace/we-have-the-same-rights-exploited-migrant-workers-win-big-payouts-20181012-p5098q.html

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