A DISTURBING report exposing widespread exploitation of foreign workers in Tamworth has been described as a “big wake-up call” for the city, as photo evidence emerges of people being forced to live in shocking conditions.
Multiculturalism advocate Eddie Whitham said he was deeply saddened, but not surprised, at the findings of a report into the poultry industry.
Mr Whitham, who in January was named Tamworth Citizen of the Year for his refugee advocacy work, said the exploitation had to stop.
“There was nothing in the report that I didn’t know, but also nothing that I could have proved,” he said.
“It’s up to our community to get together and say that it is not acceptable in this country or in this town.”
Tamworth mayor Col Murray said simply: “This is not the sort of thing that we expect to see from our corporate citizens.”
The Fair Work Ombudsman released the report after an 18-month investigation.
It found that Baiada Poultry used the services of shadowy labour-hire companies to source foreign workers.
The investigation concluded that workers on 417 visas were routinely underpaid and overworked at the processing plants.
Mr Whitham said the language barrier between locals and the workers, who are sourced mainly from Taiwan and Hong Kong, exposed them to abuses.
He said he had been in Tamworth houses where “seven or eight” overseas workers shared a single bedroom and bathroom.
“The people who run these (processing facilities) should be totally responsible for what goes on,” he said.
“And English should be taught to these people, because that’s the one thing that will save them from exploitation.”
Australasian Meat Industry Employees’ Union Newcastle and Northern branch secretary Grant Courtney said he was worried about whether the ombudsman would follow through on the findings.
“One of the key things that I’m bitterly disappointed about is that the report – yes, it has some damning findings and we agree with the findings, but there is no suggestion of prosecution,” he said.
“Section 550 of the Fair Work Act clearly allows corporate bodies to be tied to sham contracting arrangements, if they knew of those arrangements.”
The union provided The Leader with the photo on today’s front page, which it claims was taken by an overseas worker six weeks ago in Tamworth.
It says the room is only 2.5m by 3m, is shared by six people, and is typical of the accommodation provided to about 500 migrant workers across the red and white meat-processing industries in Tamworth, most of whom are on 417 visas.
A Fair Work spokesperson told The Leader the ombudsman had not ruled out prosecuting Baiada, or any of the people involved with the six companies identified as supplying the workers.
“We will work our way up and down the supply chain in pursuit of those who are flouting workplace laws, to ensure workers are being paid properly and treated fairly,” a spokesperson said.