Strawberry pickers claim they were lied to by agencies

QUESTIONS ASKED: Two former Caboolture strawberry farm workers have accused their employers of lying about wages and forcing them to live in overcrowded accommodation.
QUESTIONS ASKED: Two former Caboolture strawberry farm workers have accused their employers of lying about wages and forcing them to live in overcrowded accommodation. Brett Wortman

TWO former strawberry pickers who were working on Caboolture farms have accused their employment agencies of lying about wages and working hours, and forcing employees to live in overcrowded accommodation.

Hong Kong national Kaki Lam and Taiwanese national Mary Lin worked on farms throughout Caboolture between March and May this year, directly employed by two agencies.

Caboolture News has chosen not to name these agencies.

Ms Lam said soon after beginning work, she and Ms Lin realised the wages and working hours promised in the job advertisement they responded to weren't accurate.

She said despite being told they "would be busy all the time", workers often received only one hour of work each day, barely enough to cover the cost of rent and transport to the strawberry fields.

Workers were paid $17.50 a box of seedling plants (about 500 seedlings), which took about an hour to plant, Ms Lam said.

That was despite being told they would receive $37.50 to $40 for two boxes.

"So there is $2.50 to $5 less paid per 1000 seeding plants," Ms Lam said.

According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, fruit or vegetable pickers should receive at least $21.08 an hour on a casual hourly basis.

Ms Lam and Ms Lin said the agencies placed them in houses which often contained more than 10 people with some sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags, and charged them $120 a week in rent.

Ms Lin said she was placed in a house of 13 people in Morayfield.

But when Caboolture News visited the house on Thursday, a resident said there were just five people living there, after two had moved out the previous weekend.

He also said three residents were employed at Kilcoy Pastoral Company, and two were unemployed.

Police had been called to the house on at least one occasion due to noise complaints, the resident said.

Ms Lam and Ms Lin's complaints have added to controversy already surrounding the picking industry in Caboolture.

In August 2013, the Fair Work Ombudsman confirmed it was monitoring strawberry farms around Caboolture after receiving complaints about underpayments to foreign workers. Compliance checks found more than 150 pickers and packers had been underpaid over $134,000.

Caboolture News made repeated attempts to contact the directors of the agencies in question, calling registered phone numbers and sending emails, however they failed to respond. Both businesses are registered in the Caboolture/Morayfield area, and have been operational for about seven months.

A Fair Work Ombudsman spokeswoman said there were no complaints relating to either company.

Topics:  caboolture employment agencies fruit pickers strawberry farm

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