Vulnerable workers contracted to staff a Queensland mushroom farm have been left out of pocket after the director of their former labour hire company was fined $22,440 for paying flat rates as low as $16.37 an hour.
The director of HRS Country Pty Ltd, which went into liquidation in 2016, was handed the penalty by the Federal Court after being found to have underpaid 80 workers a total of $78,664 over eight months in 2014.
The ruling is an anti-climactic ending to an almost four-year legal battle for the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO), which initially alleged in 2016 that hundreds of workers had been underpaid at the farm to the tune of $650,000.
The case, which saw the FWO seek to test workplace laws around the application of piece rates, initially included separate allegations the Stapylton farm and its director were accessories to the wage theft.
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But in a 2018 ruling the Federal Court rejected those claims and further struck down other submissions relating to the use of piecework agreements by the farm, considerably constraining the scope of the FWO’s case.
The FWO attempted to appeal, eventually filing an application to the High Court in September last year, but was again stymied in February when the court refused to hear the case.
In the latest ruling, which concerned the labour hire company itself, the court ordered the Fair Work Ombudsman to distribute the fine —worth less than 30% of the outstanding wages— to underpaid employees as partial compensation.
Workers at the mushroom farm, some of which were migrant visa holders, were not given paid rest breaks and payslip laws were also contravened, the court heard.
Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said the regulator still has its eye on the horticulture sector, which has emerged as one of the worst offending industries when it comes to wage theft.
“The Fair Work Ombudsman discovered these underpayments during the Harvest Trail Inquiry which was aimed at improving compliance with workplace laws across the horticulture industry,” Parker said in a statement.
“The horticulture sector employs a significant number of vulnerable workers and it is important that we take actions to ensure that they are receiving their full lawful wages and entitlements.”