“The union is calling on the government to ensure these sham contracting arrangements cannot continue”: Grant Courtney.
Staff at a labour hire company that short-changed chicken processing workers and forced them to live in overcrowded share accommodation are allegedly operating the same business under a different name after going into liquidation and escaping claims for more than $434,000.
Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union representative Grant Courtney said the labour hire firm Pham Poultry owes 30 people more than $434,000 in back payments for work at the Baiada chicken processing plant near Newcastle.
Mr Courtney said Pham Poultry had escaped paying its debts by going into liquidation. He said staff associated with the company had registered another business called NTD Poultry which is providing a similar labour hire service to the Baiada plant in Beresfield.
“The union has legal proceedings lodged against this company for gross underpayment of wages,” he said. “The union is calling on the government to change the Corporations Act to ensure these sham contracting arrangements cannot continue.”
Pham Poultry recently went into liquidation after paying 10 workers at the Baiada factory near Newcastle $20,250 in back payments. The Fair Work Ombudsman investigated complaints the workers were being paid as little as $11.50 an hour for shifts of up to 20 hours. They should have been paid between $16.50 and $39 an hour.
The workers, from Hong Kong and Taiwan, were in Australia on 417 working holiday visas.
The Ombudsman’s inspectors were told female workers were paid $11.50 an hour to wrap, label and pack trays of meat. Male workers were paid $12.50 an hour, and workers using a mincer were paid $13.50.
The Minister for Employment, senator Eric Abetz, said the work practices identified by the Ombudsman were of “grave concern to the government”.
“This case should serve as a warning to any other employer who believes 417 working holiday visa holders are fair game,” he said.
Fairfax was unable to contact the labour hire companies and the union has only been able to deal with them through an accountant.
Don Nguyen, who has worked as an accountant for Pham Poultry and NTD Poultry, said he had “no idea” how the labour hire companies are operated. “They just say work out the tax for me,” he said. “I don’t know how they run the business.”
Mr Courtney said he was chasing $1.26 million in underpayments, owed to 150 overseas workers, from four labour hire companies.
He said companies including Baiada, one of the largest chicken producers in Australia, were using labour-hire companies to keep costs competitive.
“The reasons companies engage temporary international workers through indirect employment is that they can walk away from their legal responsibilities for paying workers compensation insurance, superannuation, public liability and minimum rates of pay,” Mr Courtney said.
A 23-year-old woman from Hong Kong who worked at the Baiada chicken processing plant in Beresfield for more than six months said she was paid $11.50 an hour and shared a house with 30 people.
“I shared a room,” she said. “I didn’t have to share a bed.
“I was doing the night shift working 12 hours a day, six days a week. Sometimes we had to continue to work for an extra four to five hours with no break.”
Serious health and safety issues have also been raised at a Baiada poultry plant in Laverton North, Victoria, where a worker was decapitated in 2010.
Baiada management declined to comment.