Monday, January 5, 2015

AUSTRALIA::Fruit picking industry operator investigated over claims of bullying, sexual harassment in Mildura

A Victorian man is being investigated by the Federal Government over allegations he has exploited backpackers working in the fruit picking industry, paying them as little as 60 cents an hour.

The Fair Work Ombudsman received several complaints about the Mildura operator just before Christmas, including allegations of sexual harassment.

Craig Bildstein, a director with the ombudsman's office, said there were also reports the man had crammed dozens of workers into one home, and another 12 in a garage.

"The suggestion's been put to us that backpackers are being charged up to $150 a week, with reportedly up to 32 people being accommodated in one home and a dozen or so more sleeping in the garage," he said

The man allegedly charged workers a $450 fee to find them a job.

It has also been alleged the man had been bullying and sexually harassing some of the workers on the property.

Mr Bildstein said it was not the first time the Fair Work Ombudsman had received complaints about the operator.

"The allegations that have been put to us include bullying, sexual harassment and ripping them off to the tune of hundreds of dollars," he said.

"Some of these matters are obviously outside our jurisdiction, but clearly where we identify these matters we do pass them on the appropriate local authorities [and] that might be the police."

The Australian Workers Union (AWU) is concerned exploitation of foreign workers is rife in the fruit picking industry.

AWU Victorian branch secretary Ben Davis said labour-hire arrangements were becoming more common in the fruit picking industry.

"I think that's the large part of the problem. The growers themselves don't actually know what is happening at the point of payment to the employee," he said.

"This is hardly the only complaint that I suspect the Fair Work Ombudsman has had in recent times."

The Fair Work Ombudsman said it was now stepping up its investigations of employment arrangements within the fruit picking industry.

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