Seasonal Farm Services fined $102,000 for underpaying workers

A LABOUR hire operator who underpaid 144 Lockyer Valley fruit and vegetable pickers and packers, most of whom were from overseas, has been ordered to pay a $102,000 penalty.

Ram Kumar admitted in Federal Circuit Court his company Seasonal Farm Services had underpaid the farm workers a total of $60,780 in 2014 and 2015.

The largest individual underpayment was $2820.

Federal Circuit Court Judge Sal Vasta found the underpayment was deliberate conduct by Mr Kumar, who was ordered to repay the workers $60,780.

Most of the employees, who were picking and packing fruit and vegetables on a number of Lockyer Valley farms, were from Asia, Europe and the United Kingdom.

They were in Australia on 417 working holiday visas, one worked as a supervisor and three were aged 19.

Seasonal Farm Services was investigated as part of the Fair Work national Harvest Trail inquiry, aimed at addressing exploitation of overseas workers on Australian farms.

Mr Kumar was ordered by Judge Vasta to pay $17,000 and his company was penalised a further $85,000.

Mr Kumar and his company had also failed to keep any records for a further 70 employees, who were paid piece rates.

The lack of records prevented the Fair Work Ombudsman from assessing whether the 70 employees had received minimum legal entitlements.

Judge Sal Vasta said the record keeping contraventions were "extremely serious''.

The judge said there was no way of knowing whether or not the breaches of the Fair Work Act were even more blatant than what the investigation discovered.

A number of the employees had worked for the labour hire company so they could become eligible to stay in Australia for two years on their 417 visas.

They had to do 88 days of specified work in a designated regional area and in certain industries in the first year.

They were generally paid flat rates ranging rom $16 to $18.50 an hour, but pickers and packers and the supervisor were entitled to more per hour.

The underpayments persisted for several months after the Fair Work Ombudsman told Mr Kumar his company need to pay minimum award rates, after complaints from two workers.

The Fair Work Ombudsman said employers should realise that exploitation of overseas workers was treated particularly seriously, as visa holders could be vulnerable if unaware of their rights. "Minimum lawful pay rates in Australia apply to everyone and are not negotiable''.

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