Audit crops up at cherry orchards

THE Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) slapped several cherry growers in Orange with fines during an audit this week for failing to meet their employer obligations.

FWO inspectors visited 12 randomly-selected orchards in the Orange area as part of a nationwide crackdown and found a “mixed bag” of compliant and non-compliant employers who were issued fines ranging from $110 to $5000, FWO assistant director Phil Marsh said.

“Generally [the fines] were at the lower end of the scale, but next year if we find the same things we’ll need to consider upping the fines,” he said.

“The most common issue that people tell us is ‘I don’t have time, it’s all too much’.

“But these are not new requirements. If you get it right once you should be able to maintain that system of record.

“All the resources they need are available free of charge on our website.”

About 100 pickers who worked on farms in Orange last season were embroiled in a payment dispute between a local orchardist and employment contractor Pasifika Resources with many lodging complaints with the FWO.

Mr Marsh was unable to comment on the ongoing investigation into Pasifika, but said growers had learnt from last year’s events and few were using employment contractors.

“As a result of the complaints last year there is definitely a heightened awareness that they need to get it right,” he said.

“It’s important for growers to be aware, turning a blind eye to wrongdoing by a contractor does not necessarily exonerate them from liability under the Fair Work Act.”

Mr Marsh said the audit was the second year of a three-year program so the FWO inspectors were no longer turning a blind eye.

“We want to encourage people to inform themselves because none of these obligations are new,” he said.

“This year has been mostly educational ... we’ll follow up next year with a clear compliance approach.”

Mr Marsh said the seriousness of the non-compliance varied, with some employers keeping no records and others having technical issues.

He said it was in the orchardists’ best interests to spread the word about the FWO audit so everyone was on an even playing field when it came to labor costs rather than “under cutting their neighbours”.

The four inspectors checked employee wage records, looked for written piecework agreements signed by both parties, and ensured all employees were receiving a payslip within one day of being paid.

Mr Marsh said the FWO also aimed to educate employees with the itinerant nature of the workforce meaning some employees were unaware of their entitlements and were often reluctant to complain.

clare.colley@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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