Published: 21 February 2017
Author: Ryan Carlisle Thomas

Union test case to challenge supermarket labour tactics

Legal bid to stop exploitation of migrant labour

The National Union of Workers (NUW) has launched a landmark test case against one of the nation’s biggest vegetable growers, Covino Farms, following controversy over “modern-day slavery”, abuse and exploitation of migrant workers exposed by the Weekly Times and ABC’s Four Corners in 2014 and 2015.

Through the Federal Court, the NUW seeks $500,000 in back-pay for 44 workers from places including Hong Kong and Taiwan who claim to have been grossly underpaid and forced to work extreme, gruelling hours between April 2013 and May 2015.

Covino Farms made a statement on its website, refuting the allegations and denying knowledge of mistreatment of its workers. It essentially deflected all responsibility to the labour hire firm it engaged, Chompran Enterprises. 

Side-stepping liability

The practices of labour hire, contracting, subcontracting and franchising allow companies to separate themselves from their workforces and to escape liability to their workers on the ground.

Covino Farms supplies fast-food enterprises such as KFC as well as major supermarkets such as Woolworths. Woolworths has confirmed its “indirect relationship” with the Gippsland-based company through a third-party salad supplier.

If NUW’s case is successful, primary employers may be held accountable for the middle-men they engage and pressure will be put up all the way up the supply chain to the players at the top.

It will send the message to major horticulture industry users like Coles and Woolworths that they can no longer turn a blind eye to what happens below them.

A case management hearing has been adjourned to 17 March 2017.

What to do if you know about worker exploitation 

Exploitation not only hurts the workers themselves but the industry on a broader scale. Other farms and labour hire firms struggle to compete with those who use exploited low-cost labour.

If you or someone you know has been underpaid, abused or exploited at work, you should report to the Fair Work Ombudsman or seek independent legal advice.

The Fair Work Ombudsman accepts anonymous reports and uses the information provided to inform future education and enforcement activities. They may also be able to help with a workplace dispute or provide some information about your rights and options.

JobWatch offers a free and confidential telephone advice service and our lawyers at Ryan Carlisle Thomas and Stringer Clark can provide a free 30 minute consultation on any employment matter.

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