Ombudsman investigates worker exploitation on North Coast

A SPECIALIST team of inspectors from the Fair Work Ombudsman is in the region this week to investigate allegations of employers exploiting backpackers for cheap labour.

Director of the Overseas Workers Team Carey Trundle, said allegations included underpayment, non-payment, and exploitation of workers in exchange for accommodation programs.

Fair Work Ombudsman Overseas Workers Team director Carey Trundle is in the Northern Rivers for the next two days with her team investigating the working conditions of overseas workers on working holiday visas. Photo Cathy Adams / The Northern Star
Fair Work Ombudsman Overseas Workers Team director Carey Trundle is in the Northern Rivers for the next two days with her team investigating the working conditions of overseas workers on working holiday visas. Photo Cathy Adams / The Northern Star Cathy Adams

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"We are very keen to work with employers and communities to make sure that those who try to get a competitive edge by ripping off vulnerable workers are brought to account."

The Fair Work Ombudsman has already this financial year recouped $385,567 for 138 underpaid 417 visa holders, up almost 50% from two years ago.

"While they're in the country the overseas workers are entitled to exactly the same workplace rights as Australians... sometimes people view the 417s as a source of cheap labour and that's not the case," Ms Trundle said.

"Where we find employers are breaking the rules, we want to work with them to get it right now.

"However, if it is deliberate exploitation and they don't want to work with us then we will take further action."

Primary industries such as horticulture and agriculture and meat processing are under the microscope.

Under the rules of the conditional two-year 417 working holiday visa, travellers must work 88 days in primary industries to be granted the right to stay for their second year.

Ms Trundle said farmers could be found culpable even when they were using labour sourced indirectly from a labour hire company or hostel.

"If they're dealing with a labour supplier who can miraculously offer this cheap labour source to get their crops picked, the farmer needs to stop and ask why," she said.

For backpackers themselves, Ms Rundle had some advice.

"The best defence for an overseas worker being underpaid or treated unfairly is to know their rights."

Contact the Fair Work Infoline on 13 13 94, or online at http://www.fairwork.com.au.