The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) says the government’s proposed IR laws will “pour cold water on Australia’s productivity growth”.
The new legislation will close a loophole that allows employers to undercut employees with cheaper labour-hire workers – a practice commonly used in aviation, mining and farming.
However, the NFF’s criticisms ring hollow as one of Australia’s largest produce suppliers is accused of underpaying three visa holders a whopping $91,907.
Closing the loopholes bill
Under the proposed ‘closing the loopholes bill’ companies with 15 or more workers will be forced to pay labour-hire workers the same wages as those engaged under enterprise agreements.
The Fair Work Commission will be given the power to make orders forcing businesses to pay the same wage to directly employed and labour hire workers.
It will also have the power to prevent employers them from taking action to avoid their obligation.
A default three-month exemption period will apply, allowing for surge work and temporary replacements.
The changes to labour-hire arrangements is one of four elements of the closing the loopholes bill – which also aims to improve the pay and conditions of gig economy workers.
The legislation also includes criminal penalties for wage theft.
Farmers Federation whinge about laws
NFF Vice President David Jochinke said the package is “a recipe for cost and confusion” to benefit “power hungry unions”.
“This isn’t about serving the interests of everyday Australians,” Mr Jochinke said.
“Polling over the weekend has shown this isn’t a priority for voters. By voting this through in its current form, the Parliament would be ignoring the genuine hip pocket concerns of the electorate.
“This Bill is about serving the niche interests of the unions while ignoring the consequences for every Australian who will pay the price for it at the supermarket checkout.”
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Minister dismissed the criticisms
Workplace relations minister, Tony Burke, scoffed at the claims.
“These changes will affect a small number of workers. But for the workers this affects, closing this loophole will be life-changing,” Burke said.
“The Liberals and Nationals refused to close the labour hire loophole when they were in government – and they still refuse to even acknowledge there’s a problem,” he said.
“They call it a ‘made-up issue’. It’s not a ‘made-up issue’ for the workers getting ripped off.”
The new laws, if passed, won’t take effect until November 2024, allowing businesses to prepare for the new payment obligations.
Coles and Woolworths supplier in court
Meanwhile, the Fair Work Ombudsman has commenced legal action against a major produce supplier to Coles and Woolworths.
A & G Lamattina & Sons run a farm on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.
Fair Work alleges the business underpaid one farmhand more than $37,000 and two other farmhands $27,000 respectively.
The regulator alleges the business paid one worker for 10 out of 52 weeks worked; another six out of 36 weeks; and the third eight out of 41 weeks worked.
The Fair Work Commission previously granted permission for the National Union of Workers to raid Lamattina to inspect employment records.
At the time, Fairfax Media spoke to three young Asian farmhands who said the company paid them between $12 and $13 per hour, well below the award rate of $22.10 per hour for casual horticultural workers.
The men also claimed Lamattina underpaid many visa holders who were too scared to complain for hear of losing their visa.
New laws ‘long overdue’
Industrial advocate Miles Heffernan described the closing the loophole bill as “long overdue”.
“The National Farmers’ Federation are making all the predictable doom and gloom claims about productivity,” he said.
“The truth is, farmers have been ripping off workers for years and getting away with it.
“These laws are therefore long overdue and will make an enormous difference to some of Australia’s lowest paid workers.”
Meanwhile, Fair Work is seeking penalties against A & G Lamattina & Sons.
The company faces penalties of up to $66,600 per contravention.
The Federal Circuit and Family Court in Melbourne has a directions hearing listed on 2 October 2023.
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