Company accused of “slavery”, penalised $227,300

Source: HC Online

A labour-hire company and its director have been penalised $227,300 for underpaying employees and luring them to Australia with false promises.

Maroochy Sunshine has been penalised $186,000 and its sole director, Emmanuel Bani, an additional $41,300 in the Federal Circuit Court in Brisbane after legal action by the Fair Work Ombudsman.

Twenty-two seasonal workers from Vanuatu were underpaid $77,649 over seven weeks when they were employed to pick fruit and vegetables at sites in Lockyer Valley, Sunshine Coast and Bundaberg.

Seasonal workers have the same rights at work as other employees in Australia, meaning they are covered by the minimum wage and condition entitlements under the Fair Work Act.

Judge Michael Jarrett described Bani’s “appalling treatment” of the workers as having deprived them of the appropriate basic living standards expected in Australia and causing a “profound impact” upon their families.

“The offending conduct was clearly designed to exploit this group of vulnerable workers,” Judge Jarrett said.

The workers were recruited by Bani as fixed-term employees on special class 416 visas as part of Australia’s Seasonal Worker Programme in July 2014.

The Seasonal Worker Programme allowed seasonal workers the opportunity to work in the Australian agriculture and accommodation industries, in order to contribute back to the economic development of their home country . The participating countries include Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

The programme offered seasonal labour in selected industries to Australian employers who could not source local labour, but was closed in 2016.

Judge Jarrett said Bani had promised the workers higher wages than they could have hoped to have earned at that time in Vanuatu and each worker travelled to Australia in response to Bani’s offer at considerable expense.

Bani required each of the employees to fund the costs of obtaining a visa, airfares to Australia, a medical check-up and a police check. Many of the workers took out loans with the National Bank of Vanuatu to cover these costs.

“The promises made to the employees by Mr Bani… were for the most part false.  Most received no wages while in Australia and had to endure appalling treatment by Mr Bani,” Judge Jarrett said.

Under the terms of the Seasonal Worker Programme and his agreement with the employees, Bani was obliged to provide each of the workers with at least 30 hours of work each week and weekly wages of more than $500.

However, Maroochy Sunshine and Bani paid 13 of the 22 workers nothing at all while they worked in Australia.  The others were given individual cash payments of between $50 and $300.

The Court heard that Bani would get angry and scream if workers asked him about their pay, sometimes threatening to call police and have the workers thrown in jail. Moreover, Bani also underpaid annual leave entitlements and breached pay-slip and frequency-of-pay laws, and knowingly failed to comply with a Notice to Produce.

Acting Fair Work Ombudsman Michael Campbell said the experience endured by these workers was “particularly harrowing”.

“One of the workers gave evidence that working for Bani’s company was like “slavery times” and that he had “never before experienced working a full day without even a cup of tea and only being fed tomatoes,” he said.

“Workers were sometimes forced to work entire days harvesting produce without any food or drink and for no pay.

“In addition, the workers spent much of their time in remote and isolated transient accommodation, sometimes sleeping in a bus on the side of the road or on chairs in a bedroom owned by a friend of Bani.”

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