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The Retail Supply Chain Alliance host packed meeting in Coffs Harbour

November 2, 2020

Berry pickers, farmers, suppliers, and retailers attended a packed meeting in Coffs Harbour this weekend where the Retail Supply Chain Alliance called for an end to worker exploitation.

The Retail Supply Chain Alliance, made up of the Australian Workers’ Union, the Transport Workers’ Union, and the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association, outlined a new approach to end decades of underpayment and worker abuse and raise standards in the mid north coast region and across Australia. The event was hosted in partnership with Coles who have entered into an Accord with the 3 RSCA unions to end exploitation in the agricultural sector.

“This is an industry which has been allowed to exploit vulnerable workers for far too long but we can bring an end to this,” AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton said.

“We have demonstrated there is real demand for change – from the major supermarkets, shoppers and from the good farmers out there who are already doing the right thing by their workers.

“We need to expose the shonky employers, and expel dodgy labour hire operators that are currently getting away with paying people a few bucks an hour for backbreaking work. We need to work with suppliers to ensure we have a truly ethical supply chain.”

The Alliance has confirmed many workers are currently earning far less than the minimum wage due to being paid piece rates – where they are paid for how much they pick. But with farmers dictating the rates, this can mean workers can end up earning as little as $3 a hour.

Speakers at the event at the Coffs Harbour Showground included farm workers who gave first hand accounts of being exploited and underpaid due to the piece rate system which the Alliance is calling to be overhauled and made fairer. Some of these stories were shocking and harrowing – with workers showing great courage in speaking up – with the accounts showing why the sector must be urgently brought to heel.

You can sign the FairGo for farmworkers petition here.

The event heard from Stuart Beagley, Senior Risk and Safety Manager at Coles, who said the supermarket giant was committed to ensuring all its fruit and veg came from ethical farms and suppliers and would only deal with farms that complied with Australian laws – including fair pay and conditions and accommodation.

Coles has already signed onto the Ethical Retail Supply Chain Accord and the Retail Supply Chain Alliance is now working with other retailers to get them to follow suit.

Gerard Dwyer, SDA National Secretary, spoke about the impacts of wage theft across Australia, while Thomas Costa of Unions NSW revealed a number of unions had now partnered up to provide specialist legal advice on visa issues to all union members.

Ray Fitzpatrick, TWU regional organiser, also highlighted the need to ensure all workers were kept safe whilst working on farms in the regions, and revealed that some workers were being asked to operate machinery and vehicles without proper training.

Mr Walton said the AWU and the Retail Supply Chain Alliance would do all it can to improve pay and conditions for Australian fruit and veg workers, but that it needed their support to deliver lasting change.

“We know that it is often difficult for people in low paying jobs to speak up against their employers but unless we start to expose these operators, they will continue to get away with murder.

“The Alliance unions are there to help, to come in and investigate, to prosecute these employers on workers’ behalf and improve pay and conditions.

“We are urging the government and all parts of the industry to join us, to give us more power to police this rogue industry and ensure that all farmers treat their workers fairly. If we do that, we will not only help backpackers and seasonal workers, we will provide far more job opportunities for Australians who right now are avoiding this industry because of its reputation for abuse and underpayment.”

The Alliance is urging workers in the industry to join the Alliance unions today so it can start fighting on their behalf.

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