WORKERS WANTED: Up to 160 pickers and packers are employed at the Elimbah strawberry farm at the peak of the season.
WORKERS WANTED: Up to 160 pickers and packers are employed at the Elimbah strawberry farm at the peak of the season. Warren Lynam

Growers fear charges against company will tarnish industry

QUEENSLAND horticulture's peak body Growcom is frustrated a labour hire company with a Sunshine Coast link has placed the industry under the spotlight for allegedly exploiting farm workers.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has taken legal action against Emmanuel Bani and his company Maroochy Sunshine Pty Ltd in the Federal Circuit Court in Brisbane.

Mr Bani allegedly recruited 22 workers from Vanuatu on 416 visas under Australia's Seasonal Worker Program in July 2014 for fruit and vegetable picking work in the Sunshine Coast, Lockyer Valley and Bundaberg.

He and his company were contractually obliged to provide workers with 30 hours work a week and weekly wages of more than $500.

However, 13 workers were allegedly paid nothing at all and others were paid between $50 and $300.

In total, the 22 workers who returned to Vanuatu were allegedly underpaid $77,649.

Mr Bani faces penalties of up to $10,200 per contravention and his company faces penalties of up to $51,000 per contravention.

Fair Work will also seek court orders for Mr Bani and his company to back-pay the workers in full.

Growcom's commercial service manager Donna Mogg was disappointed it had taken so long to come before the court as Mr Bani had allegedly come under Fair Work's radar once before.

It is alleged only five days before the 22 workers arrived from Vanuatu in 2014, Fair Work inspectors met with him and reminded him of his obligations to comply with workplace laws over another matter.

"Fair Work met with this bloke in 2014, yet it has taken nearly two years for him to come to court," Ms Mogg said.

She said most farmers were trying to do the right thing, even though some were not getting any income.

"One of the industry challenges is the flexibility required in the workforce," Ms Mogg said.

"With weather events like a cyclone, one day you can have a million bananas and the next none with 400 workers still in your industry.

"Whilst at no point is there ever an excuse for underpaying workers, it happens that everyone else gets paid except the farmer."


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