The Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) is investigating the case of a backpacker who says she was paid as little as $2.50 an hour and offered incentives to recruit Asian workers while fruit picking in Queensland.
- After two months of working on a strawberry farm, Elin* had just $70 to show for her time
- An ABC investigation revealed the Fair Work Ombudsman was failing to protect backpackers from exploitation
- The FWO says it’s looking into Elin’s case, and tracking down her employers
Earlier this week, the ABC revealed that the regulator overseeing workplace compliance was failing to stop the exploitation of backpackers working under the Federal Government’s visa scheme.
The story featured backpacker Elin*, who told the ABC that while working under a piece-rate agreement — meaning she was paid by the volume of fruit she picked or planted — she sometimes made as little as $2.50 an hour.
In two months, she said she saved just $70.
Elin said a subcontractor who arranged her employment told her he would pay her $100 for each Asian worker she could convince to work on the farm, but she rejected the proposal, saying it was “racist”.
She said the subcontractor also made sexual advances towards her, proposing she live on his property for $500 a week.
The owner of the recruitment company the subcontractor was working for rejected her allegations and said the business was regularly audited.
Elin told the ABC she had reported her employers to the FWO.
At a Senate Select Committee on Temporary Migration hearing on Thursday, the FWO said it had looked into the case and was working to track down the people Elin claimed exploited her.
Executive director of enforcement Steven Ronson said the FWO had checked its database and found reports made in May and June that aligned with Elin’s story.
“We are working with the Queensland Office of Industrial Relations, which is responsible for their labour hire licensing provisions,” he said.
“We’ve spoken with growers, we’ve spoken with landholders, we’ve spoken with various recruitment [companies] to try and track these persons of interest, and the investigations are ongoing.
“We are fairly confident we now know at least one of the persons that could be in that story.”
FWO defends reliance on education over enforcement
The ABC’s investigation revealed the FWO’s approach to stamping out the ongoing exploitation of backpackers on Australian farms favoured education over other enforcement tools.
Documents obtained by the ABC under Freedom of Information laws showed the FWO completed 1,412 formal disputes related to migrant workers last year, and just 14 per cent were dealt with via enforcement and compliance.
The rest — 86 per cent — were dealt with via education and dispute resolution.
Senator Raff Ciccone, who is chairing the Senate committee, asked the FWO whether the watchdog “had the right balance between education and enforcement”.
Deputy Fair Work Ombudsman Kristen Hannah defended the regulator’s reliance on education, saying they were “complementary tools”.
“As an approach, education, engagement and enforcement I think work very well for visa workers as a complete package. They do complement each other,” she said.
“We do also have a very strong enforcement response in the area of migrant workers as well.”
*Name has been changed