EXPLOSIVE claims have emerged of backpackers being forced to work 90-hour weeks for as low as $11.50 an hour in the local meat-processing sector.
Meat Workers Union secretary Grant Courtney yesterday claimed hundreds of foreign workers on the killing room floors at local meat and poultry processing businesses had been preyed upon by unscrupulous labour hire firms and were being used as “slave labour”.
Acting as middle men and without the knowledge of employers, the labour hire firms – some of them $2 shelf companies – were skimming workers’ pay and dramatically undermining their conditions.
“The companies think these workers are getting paid the full rate but it’s not until we pick up the evidence that we find out otherwise,” Mr Courtney said.
“The poultry industry is the most grossly exploited. Many on 417s are taking home between $11.50 and $14.50 an hour when they should be getting $26 under the enterprise agreement.”
The union is currently fighting three cases in the federal court relating to labour hire firms underpaying workers close to $1 million at Primo in Scone.
He said the 417 workers, on “working holiday” visas, were also taking jobs from local residents at a time of rising unemployment in Tamworth, especially among youth.
“We do accept there are labour shortages in certain areas but these visas are being milked to death by some employers,” Mr Courtney said.
“Unemployment rates in the New England are bloody high and this doesn’t help.”
He said some local processors, like Thomas Foods, were estimated to be made up of 60 per cent overseas workers.
He urged employers to “give local workers a go”, even if they had mixed experiences hiring them in the past.
Thomas Foods International director Gary Burridge said hiring 417 visa holders was a critical part of any large meat processing business.
“At the end of the day, many Australian businesses wouldn’t survive without 417 visa holders ... we can’t fill the positions,” Mr Burridge said.
Tamworth Business Chamber president Tim Coates said filling unskilled labour positions in Tamworth had been traditionally difficult.
“Some of these local businesses find it hard at times to find enthusiastic people to fill unskilled roles,” Mr Coates said.