The Fair Work Ombudsman has secured a $106,430.63 court penalty against a labour-hire company, after it underpaid dozens of vulnerable visa holders working on farms in Far North Queensland.
The Federal Circuit and Family Court has imposed the penalty against NQ Powertrain Pty Ltd after it admitted breaching workplace laws by underpaying 87 visa holders a total of $49,933 between December 2018 and May 2020.
The company made deductions from the workers’ wages for accommodation and transport costs that exceeded the maximum lawfully allowable and underpaid their entitlements under the Horticulture Award 2010.
The workers were from countries including Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.
NQ Powertrain employed the workers under the then Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) and Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) and supplied them on an on-hire basis to farms at locations near Cairns, including Innisfail, Tolga, Walkamin, Mareeba, Upper Daradgee and Mourilyan.
Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker said that employers in the agriculture sector, including labour hire companies, that underpay vulnerable workers risk facing significant consequences.
“Making unlawful deductions from workers’ wages and failing to pay the correct minimum entitlements is unacceptable,” Ms Parker said.
“Improving compliance in the agriculture sector and protecting vulnerable workers like visa holders, who may be unaware of their rights or unwilling to speak up, continue to be top priorities for the FWO.”
“Any employees with concerns about their pay or entitlements should contact us for free advice and assistance.”
The FWO investigated NQ Powertrain after receiving reports of potential non-compliance from the Queensland Labour Hire Licensing Compliance Unit and the Commonwealth Government departments administering the PLS and SWP.
They picked, sorted and packed fruit and vegetables and performed general labouring and housekeeping tasks on farms.
Most of the underpayment amount – more than $42,000 – consisted of NQ Powertrain making unlawful deductions from the workers’ wages for accommodation at either a boarding house in Mareeba or a farmhouse in Tolga.
The deductions were unlawful because they exceeded what NQ Powertrain actually paid for the accommodation.
Inspectors found more than a dozen instances of NQ Powertrain deducting, in total, in excess of $1000 more from a worker’s wages than was required to cover their accommodation costs.
NQ Powertrain also unlawfully deducted $3,100 from workers’ wages for airport transport costs, in contravention of the Fair Work Act, and underpaid their Sunday overtime rates, time-off-in-lieu entitlements and minimum-engagement pay, under the Horticulture Award 2010.
Individual underpayments ranged from $17 to $2,041.
NQ Powertrain rectified the underpayments in full after the FWO investigated. The company ceased trading in 2022.
The SWP and PLS were consolidated under the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) Scheme in 2022. The FWO has a dedicated PALM Scheme webpage which includes general information about workplace rights and entitlements, and links to relevant resources, including translated resources.