Cherry farms ripe for the picking in fresh FWO audit campaign

The Fair Work Ombudsman is preparing to visit cherry farms across Australia to ensure fruit pickers are being paid their full entitlements.

Around 65 farms in New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania will be audited during the harvest period between December and January.

Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James said in a statement cherry farms are a focus because they’ve been a source of several underpayment complaints in recent years.

“We are conscious that many fruit pickers are young and foreign workers who may be vulnerable if they are not fully aware of their entitlements or reluctant to complain, so it’s important that we are proactive about ensuring they are receiving their full lawful entitlements,” she says.

The most common non-compliance issues in the industry are underpayment of minimum hourly rate, failure to make written piecework agreements with employees on piece rates, failing to provide piece rate employees with a copy of their agreement and failure to keep time-and-wages records.

Other common issues include failing to provide the Fair Work Information Statement to new employees, not providing employees with detailed pay slips within one day of pay and unlawful deductions from employees’ wages for travel and accommodation.

TressCox Lawyers partner Rachel Drew told SmartCompany the fruit picking industry in general attracts foreign young people on working holidays which leads to workplace obligation breaches.

“It’s a condition of getting a second working holiday visa to do three months at a rural station and fruit picking is really common thing for them to do,” she says.

“It (the FWO) tends to be protective of the workers and it does take the view that people working on these visas could be more vulnerable because of the itinerate nature of the work and the fact they may not have a good understanding of their rights.”

The FWO will specifically be looking at cherry farms in Young, Orange, Mudgee, the Yarra Valley, the Adelaide Hills, Derwent Valley, Huon Valley and the Coal River Valley.

Drew says fruit farms have periods of intense seasonal work resulting in the farms only needing workers for a short period of time.

“It’s possible it’s difficult for them to comply with the award obligations because of the seasonal nature of the work, but I think most are aware of their obligations. However, mistakes can be made,” she says.

In many cases the ombudsman is likely to assist employers to voluntarily rectify any underpayments and educate them about their obligations.

Earlier this month the FWO conducted information sessions for cherry growers in the Adelaide Hills and regional NSW on workplace laws.

The FWO best practice guide on employing young workers was downloaded 93,000 times last financial year and gives tailored advice to businesses with young people.

Drew says the FWO’s educational campaigns are largely successful at both recovering underpayments and educating employers. 

“They’re very successful at uncovering underpayments and getting rectifications with a relatively low cost base,” she says.

“They’re also useful in terms of educating employers. The FWO will only prosecute in the most extreme cases. They seem themselves as having an educational function.”

The FWO is also cracking down on fast food businesses, announcing earlier this month it was writing to 7000 in a bid to increase workplace law compliance. Audits of 300 fast food businesses will begin in January.

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