On 4 May 2015, Four Corners, an Australian investigative
journalism program, broadcasted a report titled "Slaving
Away", uncovering the exploitation of temporary labour within
Australia's agricultural and food processing sector (the
"Report"). The Report examined the conduct of a number of
labour 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 and
The Report revealed that some labour 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 labour laws and lack of competent English skills. The
labour 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 labour hire companies often impose
unsatisfactory working conditions, including long hours and poor
Underpayment of workers and the imposition of unsatisfactory
working conditions is a clear contravention of Australian labour
laws on the part of the labour hire companies. However, it is also
possible that the farmers who engage noncomplying labour hire
companies, and the supermarkets acquiring the services of such
labour through labour 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.
A particular farmer or supermarket could be caught by section 550
depending on their involvement in the labour hire arrangements. For
example, if the supermarket had the capacity to influence the
conduct of the labour 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 labour
hire agreement is so low that it could not conceivably allow the
labour hire company to pay workers the minimum award wage, that
farmer may also face liability under section 550.
Lessons for Employers
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 the expanding reach of
Australian labour law generally, there is potential for such action
to be brought against numerous actors in relation to the
exploitation of temporary labour in the Australian agricultural and
food processing sector.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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Australian employees receive certain entitlements (such as annual leave and superannuation) where contractors do not.
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