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Published: 16 March 2017
Author: Ryan Carlisle Thomas

Supermarket supply chain exploitation again under scrutiny

Labour hire farm workers allegedly pressured to leave union

The exploitation of labour hire workers by supermarket supply chains is once again in the spotlight, as highlighted in the latest Fairfax media investigation.

The article exposes the treatment of migrant seasonal workers by Perfection Fresh, one of Australia’s major fresh produce providers. Workers have allegedly been brought in from South Pacific nations on special visas, working long hours picking fresh produce for as little as $500 per week, once so-called "deductions" of accommodation, transport, airfares, and a bond are deducted. Sometimes working up to 10 hours a day.

Unsurprisingly, workers sought advice and membership with the National Union of Workers.

Workers urged to quit their union

What happened next is somewhat surprising given the scrutiny that supply chains employing foreign workers have been under in recent times.

The agency responsible for the hire of the workers, MADEC, allegedly pressured the workers to quit the NUW, threatening that they would not be employed in the future. This alleged unlawful conduct is now the subject of a Federal Court Action.

These workers, some of the poorest, most vulnerable workers in Australia, are victims of what unfortunately appears to be an increasingly common theme of exploitation of labour-hire workers at the bottom rung of the supply chain of major Australian retailers.

The fact that the workers were brought in under the Seasonal Workers Program – commonly lauded as a more reliable migrant worker scheme – is damning and raises serious concerns that the exploitation of labour-hires is widespread and endemic in Australia. 

Legislation yes, but is it enough?

Currently, industry stakeholders appear to be divided on how best to tackle this problem.

That the federal Government has introduced legislation which, if passed, will go some way to protect vulnerable migrant workers is a welcome development. The legislation, currently before the parliament, would grant greater powers to the Fair Work Ombudsman to investigate breaches and increase penalties.

In the cut-throat scene of major supermarket wars, whether the legislation will be enough to protect those at the bottom of the supply-chain remains yet to be seen. 

The NUW has been strong the action it has taken to protect workers both in the courts and in the workplace.

Yet in the same week that we’ve celebrated Labour Day in Victoria, the enshrining of the 8 hour day, we seem to be going backwards in labour practices. 

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