Source: Australian Border Force
Vizzarri Farms, the nation’s biggest asparagus producer and a supplier to Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and Costco, was raided last week in a major raid involving more than 75 Australian Border Force (ABF) agents with support of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO), in relation to allegations of employing illegal migrant workers and lawful migrants in breach of their visa conditions.
ABF investigations started after information was received about the labour hire practices at a large agricultural farm in Koo Wee Rup, south-east of Melbourne. Further investigations led to the ABF and AFP executing simultaneous search warrants at multiple premises including the large agricultural farm and the labour hire company on-hiring the migrant workers for work.
The raids were part of a major Taskforce Cadena operation targeting labour hire intermediaries and employers suspected of exploiting foreign workers.
Evidence obtained during the raids will be used to continue investigations into the employers’ use of labour hire intermediaries to source unlawful non-citizens or lawful non-citizens working in breach of visa conditions.
The ABF, in conjunction with the FWO, are also investigating claims of under payments related to the illegal employment of foreign nationals at the site.
ABF Assistant Commissioner Investigations, Wayne Buchhorn, said in a media statement that the ABF will continue to take strong action through Taskforce Cadena to pursue people involved in the organisation of visa fraud, illegal work and the exploitation of foreign nationals.
“This operation highlights the work the ABF and its partner agencies are undertaking to target illegal labour hire operations and to stamp out illegal work and the exploitation of foreign nationals,” Assistant Commissioner Buchhorn said.
During the operation 61 unlawful non-citizens were detained and placed in immigration detention, including 36 Indonesian nationals, 22 Malaysians, 2 Cambodians and 1 Thai national. Several other workers were found to be working in breach of their visa conditions.
ABF investigators also seized more than $400,000 in cash hidden at a premises belonging to a labour hire intermediary. There are suggestions the money may have been waiting for the farm to make cash payments to workers. Illegal migrant labourers are typically paid off the books for less than the lawful pay rate.
Another citrus company Simfresh, which also supplies Coles and other major retailers, is the focus of a separate, ongoing ABF investigation for knowingly using illegal foreign workers. Simfresh is facing allegations of running two sets of employee books to conceal the use of illegal migrant workers.
The practice of systemic underpayments and falsification of records suggests that senior people in the company have known about the use and exploitation of migrant workers.
Lessons for Employers
The operations conducted by Taskforce Cadena are significant because the demonstrate that border security authorities will not only to detain and deport the unlawful workers, but will work with other federal agencies including the AFP and FWO to target company management AND people in senior ranks of labour-hire companies.
The recent revelations also raise questions about the integrity of the supply chains of major supermarkets, as price wars have driven down the cost of produce. It is suggested that low prices have forced farmers to cut margins, and encouraged some to use underpaid, illegal foreign labour. Coles and Woolworths have previously faced investigations and compliance measures by FWO for underpayments of sub-contractors in their supply chain.
People involved in the exploitation of foreign workers are liable for civil penalties of up to $10,800 per breach for a natural person or $54,000 for a corporation under the Fair Work Act.
Furthermore, employers found to have employees or contractors working in breach of their visa conditions are liable under Employer Sanctions legislation for civil penalties of $16,200 for a person or $81,000 for a corporation.
Significant criminal penalties and imprisonment can apply for those who knowingly or recklessly use unlawful labour or in more aggravated cases of illegal work activities or systemic fraud.
ABF investigations are ongoing.