Sunday, 11 November 2007
Sunday's Feature - " Workers Exploited"
Today's feature is an article by Edmund Burke in the Sunday Mail.
Labour-hire companies have been accused of exploiting Asian backpackers employed to pick fruit in southeast Queensland.
An investigation by the Queensland Workplace Rights Ombudsman has produced allegations of below-award wages. It also heard claims that up to 16 workers were charged rent of $80 a week each to share a four-bedroom house.
Ombudsman Don Brown has targeted two contractors in the Lockyer Valley, about 90km west of Brisbane — Gatton Harvesting Pry Ltd and Basil Harvesting Pty, Ltd — for underpaying workers.
"Both of those companies ... are owned and operated by expat Koreans and employ large numbers of Korean back¬packers," Mr Brown said.
He said it was possible the companies erred because of confusion surrounding Work-Choices, and acknowledged a shortage of local fruit-pickers.
But "I received complaints from local workers that they were not able to get work in the industry. It is cheaper... to hire backpackers because they have to pay to use their buses and accommodation", he said.
Gatton Harvesting owner Brian Kim said he paid workers $16.25 an hour by mistake when he should have been paying the federal rate of $16.90: "I did not know that we had the award wrong."
Ju Hwang of Basil Harvesting said her company had been paying $15.50, but would change to the award rate.
Pay slips seen by The Sunday Mail on Friday indicated workers were still being paid $15.50.
Ms Hwang said she was negotiating with farmers to let her pay correct wages: "It is a tough time for farmers here, and sometimes they do not pay us until one year after the work is done. We cannot pay our workers unless we are paid."
The ombudsman investigation also unearthed claims of overcrowded accommodation. Most of the Korean, Japanese and Taiwanese backpackers live at Carton's caravan park, but others pay extra to live in houses. Mr Kim owns two in Gatton which house casual workers, who can extend working holiday visas by a year if they work on a farm for at least 88 days.
At one home on Friday, Korean woman Lee Han Saem, 31, said she shared the five-bedroom house with 10 others. There were many shoes at the door of Mr Kim's other five-bedroom house, but the Korean tenants refused to discuss work.
Under council regulations, residential houses with more than three boarders must follow special rules.
"I will be supplying a list of the properties allegedly involved in accommodating the backpacker workers to the council for appropriate action," Mr Brown said.
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