This week’s announcement by the Fair Work Ombudsman of their interim findings into underpayments at Baiada offers a chance to reflect on the progress of tackling systemic workplace exploitation issues in Australia.
We first exposed dodgy labour contractors operating at Baiada all the way back in 2013, with the ABC’s Lateline program reporting on the shocking revelations we uncovered during our investigation into operators such as Pham Poultry.
Hundreds of employees signed a petition to the AMIEU outlining horrific conditions such as 36-hour work shifts without breaks, and hourly rates as low as $6. We also saw reports of, and witnessed first-hand, cramped living conditions such as 30 people crammed into one share house.
Pham Poultry has now liquidated as a result of aggressive action by the AMIEU to defend these exploited workers and recover their money. But we refused to let up the pressure, appearing again on the ABC’s 7:30 Report in 2015 to provide more damning evidence of ongoing worker exploitation.
Thanks to our efforts, Baiada agreed to set aside $500,000 nationwide to pay back these exploited workers who had been slaving away in their poultry factories. This is the first time in Australian meat industry history that a principal employer has ever offered back pay to underpaid sub-contractors — a new gold standard for worker determination.
Our relentless campaign at Baiada has forced the poultry giant to lift their standards nationwide. Visa workers at Baiada plants all across Australia are now given minimum award rates of pay, proper shifts and penalties, and paid correctly through bank transfers with full tax oversight and superannuation deductions.
Baiada has also changed their clock on/off system to prevent rorting and fraud, terminated relationships with further dodgy labour hire agencies such as HP Foods, and worked closely with the AMIEU to assist all workers — all thanks to pressure by the AMIEU.
The AMIEU has worked closely with Baiada to ensure that the lives of visa workers in poultry plants all across Australia were genuinely changed for the better.
The problem is not solved
While we are more than happy to acknowledge the efforts of Baiada to make positive changes, much remains to be done and the AMIEU does not accept that only $50,000 of the $500,000 Baiada set aside represents a true and accurate picture of the underpayments.
Our own assessments of the underpayments suggest the figure should be in the millions – an order of magnitude greater than the chicken-feed that Baiada is willing to assume responsibility for. These underpayments have been happening for many years, and the vast majority of exploited workers have left the country and moved on, never to return and without a hope of seeing the money that is rightfully theirs, thanks to existing workplace laws.
As we have outlined many times before both here and in submissions to Government, this form of systemic exploitation will never be truly stamped out unless we fundamentally change the nature of liability between contractors and employers.
The introduction of joint employment legislation, successfully applied already overseas in places like Canada and parts of the United States, would prevent companies from engaging dodgy labour hire agencies because doing so would expose them to the same risks as if they directly exploited the workers themselves.
Governments who are truly concerned about the exploitation of vulnerable workers must urgently consider a restructuring of Australian Business Number legislation, preventing visa workers from being tricked into applying for ABNs and being paid horrifically low contractor rates. If all visa workers were forced to use Tax File Numbers instead of ABNs, it would become much easier to track and identify exploitation before it can take root.
The AMIEU also notes that many workers across the meat industry, and all industries, are now coming forward to share their stories of underpayment thanks to the new Fair Pay online tool, jointly developed with the NUW and United Voice. More than 1 in 4 workers are now reporting underpayment and exploitation, showing clearly that there is still a desperate, overwhelming need to address the needs of Australia’s working poor.
We will remain vigilant and continue to apply pressure to both Baiada and to the Fair Work Ombudsman to ensure that the concerns of our members — and the concerns of all workers — do not go unheard or glossed over.
AMIEU Newcastle & Northern
(02) 4929 5496