A dramatic raid by more than 75 border force and federal agents has left two leading suppliers of produce to major Australian supermarkets facing allegations of employing illegal migrant workers.
Vizzarri Farms, the nation’s biggest asparagus producer and a supplier to Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and Costco, was raided early on Friday over claims it has been flouting labour laws and employing illegal migrants, who are routinely underpaid and denied basic conditions.
When employees of the farm in Koo Wee Rup, south-eastern Victoria, saw the raid was underway, a large group tried to flee across the fields. Some were brought back by Border Force and Australian Federal Police officers, but others were not immediately detained.
Fairfax Media can reveal that more than 50 alleged unlawful non-citizens were discovered during the raid on Vizzarri Farms, and several other workers were found to be in breach of their visa conditions. Border Force Agents also seized $400,000 cash, with 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 at around half the lawful pay rate.
NSW citrus company Simfresh, which also supplies Coles and other major retailers, is the focus of a separate, ongoing Australian Border Force investigation for knowingly using illegal foreign workers.
The operations, conducted by Taskforce Cadena, mark the first time border security authorities have moved away from simply deporting unlawful workers to targeting the farming company management and labour-hire syndicate bosses.
But the ABF’s efforts to target shonky labour-hire firms and employers – including farms, convenience stores, fast food franchisees, cleaning and security firms – is being stymied by major loopholes in the Migration Act.
The ABF is not able to conduct basic investigative tasks, including arresting suspects, which has allowed criminal labour-hire firms to act with relative impunity and to recruit tens of thousands of unlawful migrant workers.
Figures also suggest that Australia’s asylum protection application system is being gamed by labour-hire syndicates to allow the foreign workers they control – sometimes as indentured labour – to extend the time they can work. For instance, the number of Malaysians seeking asylum has more than doubled in two years, with the vast majority of these claims rejected. During the processing period, the Malaysians work in horticulture.
Sources with knowledge of the farming sector say a suspected corrupt labour-hire firm operator who supplied undocumented and underpaid workers to Simfresh and other farms across NSW and Victoria, has generated many millions of dollars in profits. The operator was able to leave Australia, thwarting efforts to investigate him, because the ABF lacked the power to arrest and interview him.
The Friday raids come after Fairfax Media and the ABC 7.30 program recently exposed major farming companies and supermarket suppliers, including Cutri Fruit and A & G Lamattina & Sons, as allegedly using exploited illegal migrant workers.
The reliance on underpaid and unlawful foreign workers by many farmers may get worse with the new 15 per cent tax the government will levy on every dollar earned by backpackers, which will potentially drive away what Malcolm Turnbull described as “rich, white kids from Europe” and increase the reliance on migrants paid illegally.
The recent revelations also raise questions about whether major supermarkets are doing enough to protect the integrity of their supply chains as price wars have driven down the cost of produce. This has forced farmers to cut margins, and encouraged some to use underpaid, illegal foreign labour.
The recent farming sector exposés have prompted a flood of calls and emails from overseas workers and backpackers who claim to have been exploited at farms across the nation.
Legitimate labour-hire firms have also claimed the reliance on unlawful and underpaid migrant workers in the horticulture sector makes it impossible for companies that pay legal wages to survive.
The managers of two labour-hire companies supplying major farms in Victoria’s food bowl and over the border in NSW said they had been recently forced out of business because they are unable to compete. A sixth-generation Victorian farmer told Fairfax Media there was “very little future in farming at the status quo, due to the fact I am not willing to employ illegal labour”.
That farmer asked for his name not to be used because he didn’t want “a shotgun up my backside.”
In response to the recent revelations, the National Farmers Federation will host a round-table meeting in mid-December to promote a “culture of zero tolerance of overseas worker exploitation in the horticulture sector”.
Meanwhile, leading citrus producer Simfresh, which is based in Gol Gol on the NSW border, is suspected of running two sets of employee books to conceal the use of illegal migrant workers.
The practice suggests that people in senior ranks of the company, which has been the source of multiple complaints to immigration authorities, have known about the use and exploitation of migrant workers.
Simfresh, Vizzarri Farms and Cutri Fruits have all been the subject of previous visits by immigration officers. The fact that these firms are suspected of continuing to use illegal overseas labour is, according to well-placed sources, indicative of the farming industry’s belief that policing and regulation is ineffective.
Investigations into Simfresh and Vizzarri Farms are examining whether there have been criminal breaches of the Migration Act involving companies knowingly and repeatedly using unlawful labour. If the inquiries lead to criminal prosecutions, they will be major landmark test cases – the first time authorities have used criminal provisions in the Migration Act to target employers.
Simfresh, which is run by the Simonetta family, had no comment on Friday, other than to say it had procedures in place to prevent the employment of illegal workers.
Vizzarri did not respond to requests for comment.
Migrant Worker Taskforce chief Allan Fels describes the abuse and exploitation of overseas workers across a range of industries as “systemic”, and the Fair Work Ombudsman’s Harvest Trail Inquiry has documented a catalogue of worker exploitation in the horticulture sector.
Senior government officials say major reforms are desperately needed, including amendments to the Migration Act.
The national licensing of labour hire companies has also been proposed by Victoria’s industrial relations minister Natalie Hutchins, while there are also calls by unions to place a greater legal obligation on employers to ensure their workforce is not exploited.
After the underpayment scandal at 7-Eleven, the federal government is also considering new laws to give workers at franchises the ability to seek remedy from franchisors if they are underpaid, while it has boosted the powers and resources of the Fair Work Ombudsman.
This story first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.