On May 4, 2015, Four Corners, an Australian investigative
journalism program, broadcasted a report titled "Slaving
Away," uncovering the exploitation of temporary labor within
Australia's agricultural and food processing sector (the
"Report"). The Report examined the conduct of a number of
labor hire companies supplying workers engaged in seasonal crop
picking and the processing of fresh foods that are sold in many
major Australian supermarket chains, such as Coles, Woolworths, and
The Report revealed that some labor hire companies are
exploiting vulnerable tourists, predominately from Asia, who have
travelled to Australia on holiday visas. These tourists are often
in a vulnerable position, due to their lack of understanding of
Australian labor laws and lack of competent English skills. The
labor hire companies appear to be paying such workers significantly
less than the minimum wages set out in the applicable awards, and
in some cases up to half of the award wage. Further, it is alleged
that the labor hire companies often impose unsatisfactory working
conditions, including long hours and poor working environments.
Underpayment of workers and the imposition of unsatisfactory
working conditions is a clear contravention of Australian labor
laws on the part of the labor hire companies. However, it is also
possible that the farmers who engage noncomplying labor hire
companies, and the supermarkets acquiring the services of such
labor through labor hire companies, could be liable under the
accessorial liability provisions in the Fair Work Act 2009
(Cth) (the "Act"). They will be found liable if they are
"involved" in a contravention of the Act. Under section
550 of the Act, a person is "involved" in a contravention
if he/she aids, abets, counsels, procures, or induces it, or is
knowingly concerned in or party to it, or has conspired with others
to affect it.
Depending on its involvement in the labor hire arrangements, a
particular farmer or supermarket could be caught by section 550.
For example, if the supermarket had the capacity to influence the
conduct of the labor hire companies, had knowledge of the poor
working conditions, and had knowledge that the workers were being
underpaid, this could constitute sufficient involvement to amount
to a contravention. If the amount paid by a farmer under a labor
hire agreement is so low that it could not conceivably allow the
labor hire company to pay workers the minimum award wage, that
farmer may also face liability under section 550.
It remains to be seen whether any action will be taken against
the companies and individuals implicated in the Report. However,
given the broad nature of section 550 and expanding reach of
Australian labor law generally, there is potential for such action
to be brought against numerous actors in relation to the
exploitation of temporary labor in the Australian agricultural and
food processing sector.
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guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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