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Death of agricultural worker must be investigated

June 3, 2020

The Australian Workers’ Union is calling on the Federal Government to launch an urgent inquiry into widespread labour exploitation and visa law breaking across the agriculture and horticulture industries.

The latest call for action was prompted by the death of a Fijian worker who was being illegally employed at a farm in the Riverina.

An AWU investigation into Epi Kurunawai’s death from a heart attack revealed he was being paid cash in hand and working illegally on a tourist visa whilst picking pumpkins at a produce farm in Finley and that that this practice was commonplace at farms across the Riverina.

The AWU has written to Immigration Minister Peter Dutton calling for an inquiry into Mr Kurunawai’s death and the systemic rorting of workers’ rights.

Daniel Walton, National Secretary of the AWU, said; “Thousands of workers from overseas are being exploited every single day in Australia and most are hidden from sight. It has taken the tragic death of Mr Kurunawai from a heart attack to allow us to shine a spotlight into what is really going on at farms across the country.’

The AWU became involved shortly after Mr Kurunawai’s death from a heart attack at the end of April. Organisers discovered he was being paid below the legal award rate – in cash – by a dodgy labour hire operator, and was working on a tourist visa.

Inquiries revealed the third-party operator – a Fijian native – was supplying workers on tourist visas to farms across Riverina, and that farmers were failing in their legal responsibility to ensure people were lawfully working on their farms and being paid award rates.

In the letter to Mr Dutton, the AWU’s Mr Walton writes: “Due to negligence and lack of enforcement, Australia is now running an informal guest worker program that exploits people. Exploitation of workers – no matter where they are from – is unacceptable.

‘That exploitation of this nature is endemic in Australia should be shocking to us all, and yet it is occurring on such a widespread basis in the agricultural sector that exploitation is now a business model and source of competitive advantage. Businesses are trying to shirk responsibility throughout the supply chain – and it’s time we got it under control.”

The AWU says the abuse is so widespread throughout the entire agricultural supply chain, that a complete overhaul of the system is needed and is calling for a ‘proper permanent migration system that eliminates the prospect of exploitation of this nature’.

“Enough is enough – if you’re purchasing fruit and veg in Australia you want to know it was done safely and that no workers were exploited in that process.”

In the short term it says the AWU must be allowed to conduct site visits across the region to document the extent of the abuse.

If you are aware of any worker exploitation taking place contact the AWU today.

Your enquiry will be treated in complete confidence.

You can also help us fight for workers’ rights by becoming a member of the AWU – join today.

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