Title Select Committee on Job Security
Impact of insecure or precarious employment on the economy, wages, social cohesion and workplace rights and conditions
Database Senate Committees
Date 10-03-2022
Source Senate
Parl No. 46
Committee Name Select Committee on Job Security
Page 14
Questioner Canavan, Sen Matthew
Grogan, Sen Karen
Responder CHAIR
Mr Collard
Mr Burt
System Id committees/commsen/25668/0002

Select Committee on Job Security - 10/03/2022 - Impact of insecure or precarious employment on the economy, wages, social cohesion and workplace rights and conditions

BURT, Mr Laurence, Chief Executive Officer, MADEC Australia [by video link]

COLLARD, Mr Matthew, Managing Director, SR Op Co Pty Ltd [by video link]

CHAIR: Welcome. Thank you for your time today. I note that you have not made submissions but have instead written to the committee with information regarding these matters, and I thank you for that. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses in giving evidence to parliamentary committees has been provided to you as part of your invitation to appear. I now invite you to make an opening statement. At the conclusion of your remarks, I will invite members of the committee to ask questions. Over to you, Mr Collard.

Mr Collard : I'd firstly like to take the opportunity to thank the committee for allowing SR Op Co the opportunity to provide evidence today. As one of the largest independent strawberry growers in the country, operating for over 25 years, we are a strong supporter of the Seasonal Worker Program and have prided ourselves on the retention of many seasonal workers who have requested to return to our farms over the years. Consequently, we were surprised to learn of the allegations made on 2 February through a media article in the Sydney Morning Herald, as we had never received any written or verbal notification that Aleki or Talipope would be attending the hearing, nor did we receive any notification that they would not be available for their scheduled days of work. The committee have published my email response, dated 4 February, which contains the official pay data for Aleki and Talipope between 10 November 2021 and 2 February 2022.

I've also submitted supplementary material, dated 9 March, to the committee, which I assume has been circulated to the members. The reason for submitting this material is to rectify what we consider to be false and misleading evidence provided to the committee on 2 February. My supplementary material provides our concerns and disappointment at the inaccuracy of the hours of work recorded by Talipope for the period 11 to 17 November 2021. It is clear in my supplementary material that MADEC workers did not work four of those seven days on our Seville farm. The reason Talipope's pay reflected $100 net after the MADEC deductions was predominantly determined by the 19.75 hours worked. This is a significant variation to the 64 hours that was claimed on 2 February and, on the evidence now before the committee, leaves no plausible explanation other than that the document headed 'Diary record of working' was fabricated for the purpose of misleading the committee.

The company rejects the claims that workers need to ask for water at our Seville farm. Once again, my supplementary material details the provisions of tank drinking water and bottled water at the farm. This water is accessible to all workers, and management continually reinforce the necessity to monitor fluid intake to prevent dehydration. Whilst we can encourage and provide access to drinking water, we can't force workers to drink. Hence, we rely on communication from our management, MADEC supervisors and the workers' self-desire to ensure hydration levels are met.

My supplementary material to the committee also provides a detailed account of the two health and safety matters on separate farms which our management attended. Both these situations were supported by actions of our employees, and in the incident on 18 December I would go as far as stating that the national general manager's actions may have saved the worker's life.

In my 18-month term as managing director, I have not received any allegations from any other workers in respect of the health and safety matters addressed today. We are committed to providing a safe environment for our workers and we respect the rights of witnesses to provide evidence under parliamentary privilege. However, we are compelled to ensure the committee has factual evidence which is not reckless, misleading or false and which allows for the records to be corrected. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Collard. Mr Burt?

Mr Burt : Thank you, Chair. MADEC is a not-for-profit organisation governed by a voluntary board of directors. We've been providing services in the community for the past 50 years. Across a range of different program areas, we provide relief to people experiencing disadvantage. In the Seasonal Worker Program, we do this by creating employment opportunity—opportunity for participants to work in Australia and achieve positive financial benefits that they otherwise may not have had access to. We have created such opportunity, since the program's commencement over a decade ago, for many thousands of people thus far.

Along with a number of other organisations, MADEC has played a significant role in the development of the Seasonal Worker Program, collaborating with the Australian government to achieve the program's objectives. In MADEC alone, the casual employees we support across Australia achieve, on average, $30,000 per annum in net financial benefit—net financial benefit after living costs such as accommodation, transport and health insurance. In total, the list currently extends to $70 million per annum in net financial benefit generated for MADEC workers, their families and their communities. The benefits generated are clearly substantial.

I've been advised by the Senate select committee that my [inaudible] needs to provide evidence on matters relating to the treatment of seasonal workers who gave evidence at the committee's public hearing on 2 February 2022. I previously provided a written response to the committee on this matter on 10 February. Since that time I haven't been provided with any further information, beyond the [inaudible] accusations that we responded to—acquisitions that we reject. We reject the accusations, which were unsubstantiated, made by Samoan workers and their representatives on 2 February.

Following 2 February, in [inaudible] evidence has been provided to our program managers, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in accordance with appropriate legal process—a process that we participate in willingly and transparently. Documentary evidence that substantiates the comments, I made in a submission to the committee on 10 February. Documentary evidence provided demonstrates that unsubstantiated accusations made against MADEC on 2 February by the workers and their representatives were either false or misleading. Examples of accusations proved false by this evidence include accusations that employment offered work for hourly work, that piece rate payments were not agree to, implications that workers [inaudible] inappropriately taken, accusations by—

CHAIR: Excuse me, Mr Burt. Sorry to interrupt you. We're picking up what you're saying, but it's not particularly clear. Would you mind if you turned off your video so you can do it just on voice? That might be better for us

Mr Burt : Accusations proven false with respect to no COVID testing provided during COVID isolation. Accusations that workers did not have access to water at work. Accusations workers did not receive medical care when required. Accusations that workers were underpaid against the official employment record that was supplied.

As an ethical organisation, we always strive to achieve the Seasonal Worker Program objectives while meeting compliance and statutory requirements. But there is always room for improvement. We don't attest to be perfect. It is a very complex scheme [inaudible] challenging program area with border closures. [inaudible] and we'll continue to work to ensure the best possible outcome for our participants. Thank you.

CHAIR: Mr Burt, we picked up just about all the words, and it was certainly sort of clear, but we might just suspend for a moment so we can get you on teleconference so that you don't miss any of the points you want to make from questions. I now hand over to Senator Canavan to ask questions.

Senator CANAVAN: I want to start by asking about the wages that were tabled in the information you provided to us about Talipope's wages in particular. I think Sunny Ridge has provided this to us, but you quote official MADEC records showing 32.65 hours per week on average between 10 November and 2 February, and the average net pay being $439.56. That only works out as a net pay of $13 an hour. What was the gross pay over that period?

Mr Collard : I've got in front of me the documents I tabled on 4 February for the 12 weeks. Is that the period you're asking about?

Senator CANAVAN: I haven't calculated exactly how many weeks. I said from 10 November to 2 February.

Mr Collard : I've got here for Aleki that the gross payment was $11,763.17. For Talipope it was $11,552.70.

Senator CANAVAN: How many hours?

Mr Collard : The hours aren't tallied here. I have the individual hours every week. I can tally those for you.

Senator CANAVAN: The net pay is very low, though. What's your explanation for only getting 13 bucks an hour in net pay?

Mr Collard : In regard to net pay, we actually are responsible for the gross payment. The deductions are something that the approved employer is coordinating.

Senator CANAVAN: That's MADEC, is it?

Mr Collard : That's MADEC. So I can't really give evidence to the breakdown of the specific nature of the deductions. I believe it will be MADEC that can provide you with that material. I can provide you with the gross payment and the hours.

Senator CANAVAN: Mr Burt, have you got an explanation? I don't have the gross wage in front of me, but it would seem like there's at least a significant amount of deductions here. What's the justification for that?

Mr Burt : In the first 10 weeks of someone's arrival into Australia on the Seasonal Worker Program they work through a process of paying for the international airfare, visa costs, a cash advance and other on-arrival expenses that have been incurred by approved employers on their behalf. That's spread across the first initial weeks of engagement and recovered on a weekly basis. In addition to that, there are weekly living costs, such as accommodation, transport and health insurance, that are also recovered out of workers' salaries each week by their approved employer.

In terms of some stats around their earnings: over those 12 weeks, the two workers in question averaged between them $970 gross per week. Their net earnings after those deductions over their first 12 weeks were $390, which is well beyond the target net benefit that was articulated in the letter of offer that the workers agreed to prior to them leaving Samoa. In actual fact, their net benefit in that first 12 weeks was about 20 per cent higher than their offer of employment indicated it would be.

Senator CANAVAN: Can you explain that to me? I haven't heard of that before. Before they come to Australia, they get some kind of letter telling them, 'This is what to expect'?

Mr Burt : Yes. As an approved employer, MADEC's responsible for providing an approved letter of offer, an offer of employment. It's quite detailed with respect to the type of employment that will be undertaken, the basis of payment, where workers will be living and a whole range of other information. The letter of offer is approved by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade before MADEC's permitted to provide that letter to the labour sending unit of the participating country. It's quite transparent. That letter of offer is then presented to the workers by the labour sending unit, the Samoan authorities, to make sure that workers fully understand its content.

Senator CANAVAN: Does that letter outline how much they would be expected to be paid in absolute terms or a percentage of the deductions? When you say 'net benefit', how's that presented to the worker?

Mr Burt : It provides the worker an estimate of what their weekly gross earnings will be, what the estimates are for tax weekly, what the estimates are for each type of deduction that's going to be taken and, as a result, what the net financial benefit is each week. Typically, it shows two brackets of weeks. It will demonstrate what the first six to 10 weeks will look like, because you have additional deductions for the repayment of upfront and on-arrival costs. It will then show what the weekly net benefit is expected to be for the duration or remainder of the worker's assignment in Australia.

Senator CANAVAN: You are saying that the pay that these workers received over that period of three-odd months was higher than the net amount they were presented with before leaving for Australia?

Mr Burt : Correct. It was higher than what was articulated in the letter of offer approved by the Australian government, yes.

Senator CANAVAN: I am just going to refer to the pay slip that was tabled. This is the pay slip that's got a header from MADEC. It was printed on 18 November. There are deductions listed there—things like accommodation, $150. How do you provide that accommodation? Do you own the facilities that they stay in, or is that rented to some degree from someone?

Mr Burt : We have resisted the urge or temptation to purchase accommodation. That's not our core business in the Seasonal Worker Program. So all accommodation provided to workers is sourced commercially from commercial accommodation providers. In some circumstances, we may lease a house and then sublease bedrooms to employees. But, generally speaking, our preferred model is to source it from a commercial provider.

Senator CANAVAN: Those providers are completely at arm's length from you? You don't own or have any financial interest in the accommodation providers?

Mr Burt : Correct.

Senator CANAVAN: On the $150 on this particular pay slip for the week, is that charged at cost or are you applying a margin on top of what you have to pay the accommodation providers?

Mr Burt : As an approved employer in the Seasonal Worker Program, we're not permitted to charge for recovery of any costs other than on an at-cost basis, whether it's transport, health insurance, airfares or accommodation. The rules in the Seasonal Worker Program state that all deductions have to be at cost, in accordance with Fair Work expectations.

Senator CANAVAN: I have done cost accounting; it can be a slippery term. Are there any overheads of yours or other costs applied to that $150?

Mr Burt : No, the guidelines of the Seasonal Worker Program prohibit administrative or overhead costs being applied.

Senator CANAVAN: We asked questions before, and you provided information, about their time sheets or their diary record-of-working sheets, which surely you've seen, that were tabled in the Senate last time. You have told us—and I want to get this on the record—that Talipope, whose time sheets were the ones tabled, did not work on 12,13, 14 and 17 November, despite these records saying he did. I just want to confirm: that is your evidence? Who can verify that?

Mr Collard : I think that was part of my submission. I can confirm that the farm didn't engage MADEC workers basically due to weather conditions and low-volume fruit. So we just did not have pickers on site. It was physically impossible that Talipope could have worked those days for us because we hadn't engaged any MADEC workers.

Senator CANAVAN: Was Talipope scheduled to work on those days?

Mr Collard : If we had had fruit and demand, then, yes, that MADEC crew could have easily been engaged on those days.

Senator CANAVAN: Would he have thought that he was going to work those days? When do you let them know? When do they find out their roster for the week?

Mr Collard : Laurence, do you want me to leave that to you, since your team was liaising with the crew?

Mr Burt : Typically, the team would be advised at the start of a week what the days of attendance will look like for the coming week. It certainly wouldn't be for a full fortnight. That advice, if it changes, is updated on a day-to-day basis between the farm, the farm managers that are on site and the team leaders that are working with the team. That pay slip was from a very early part of the workers' engagement I would strongly doubt whether there was a fortnight's worth of roster provided by Sunny Ridge at that time, when the season was just getting started.

Senator CANAVAN: Just to be clear—if you didn't hear the evidence from Talipope—my recollection of that was that he filled this out on a daily basis. After a shift, he would fill out the hours; that is the evidence he provided. You might not be able to recall this, but for that week, over those days that he didn't work, would he have been advised at the start of the week about the lack of fruit and that there would be no work, or would that sometimes happen the day before—'Sorry, we were going to work, but there is no fruit'? When would that have been advised? That is probably to you, Mr Collard.

Mr Collard : At the end of the day, my understanding—I'm not the technical head of farms—is that we did have low temperatures the week before. There were low day and night temperatures, which were impacting on the fruit. So I would assume there was every chance the notification may have been a couple days in advance, based on what we would have seen the week before.

Senator CANAVAN: Okay. Finally on this, do these sheets that you've seen look like anything that either MADEC or Sunny Ridge would record? Is this the same sort of template or form that you record hours in?

Mr Co llard : From Sunny Ridge, no.

Mr Burt : It's not an official MADEC timesheet record, no.

Senator CANAVAN: So you've never seen anything like this in this format until you saw the tabled documents for the Senate?

Mr Burt : I've seen formats like that over time, but nothing consistently from our workers in our seasonal worker program.

Senator CANAVAN: The evidence we received earlier that these timesheets were compiled with the assistance, or at least the involvement, of the union. Were you aware that the union were doing this at all? Had you seen these sorts of sheets before?

Mr Burt : I'm certainly aware that the UWU are working closely with the workers at Sunny Ridge and a number of the other farms that our workers are hosted at. We have weekly meetings with the UWU to resolve issues that are raised. We have quite a constructive relationship with that team. So we're aware they're closely engaged.

Senato r CANAVAN: When you compare the timesheets with the payslip, it's clear that, if the timesheets were correct, Talipope had not been paid for some work. Had you received any complaints from the union of underpayment or a lack of pay in regard to Talipope?

Mr Burt : No.

Senator CANAVAN: Likewise for you, Mr Collard?

Mr Collard : No, we hadn't received any complaints. Normally it would be MADEC that follow us up on the gross pay to their employees, so Laurence not receiving any complaints would flow through to us not receiving any queries or complaints from MADEC.

Senator CANAVAN: I want to move quickly to the allegations regarding parliamentary privilege, but if the chair needs to stop me I'm fine with that. On 2 February, when the hearings occurred, were any of the workers that appeared scheduled to work that day? I don't know who would know that information. Does either of you know?

Mr Burt : I would assume so. I can't speak with authority on the matter. I would assume so. It's a standard working day of the week, and there weren't any reasons that we're aware of. We were clueless about where the workers were.

Senator CANAVAN: Could you take that on notice? This is a key issue. You hadn't asked anyone before this hearing about what they were scheduled to do that week?

Mr Collard : I can respond on what was meant to happen in the week leading into the hearing. Talipope, for Sunny Ridge, actually didn't present for work on 26 January, 27 January, 28 January and 31 January. I can also confirm that Aleki didn't present for work on 30 and 31 January, and he left unauthorised early on Thursday 27 January. I'm aware of those absences, but I can't tell you exactly at this moment in time what was scheduled for 2 February.

Senator CANAVAN : Were all of those absences without reason?

Mr Collard : Yes, without reason. There was no medical certificate. There was no explanation. It was without reason.

Senator CANAVAN : I don't know if you heard earlier that Talipope mentioned that he had been absent on some days for being sick. What's the normal process? Is there an expectation that they let you know on the morning of? How do they do that? Do they let MADEC or somebody know they can't come to work because they're sick?

Mr Collard : It's my understanding that Talipope did provide a medical certificate post the hearing, because he was still working on our farm post the hearing. That's acceptable. That's the normal course of business in running an operation in Australia.

Senator CANAVAN : So you're not necessarily notified the day of?

Mr Collard : No, it can be the next day or it can be that afternoon. It's just one of the challenges we have.

Senator CANAVAN : So no-one has any information about what work was scheduled the week of the hearing, in the first week of February? You don't know what the scheduled hours were? Notwithstanding his absences, he was still on your books for that week?

Mr Collard : Yes. I'm happy to take it on notice and come back to you on that.

Senator CANAVAN : Yes, if you could, take on notice what was scheduled for work. You've obviously seen that, post the hearing, there have been allegations that their shifts were changed upon their return. Were they scheduled to work on the days following 2 February?

Mr Collard : I can include that in the information that we'll come back to you on.

Senator CANAVAN : Yes, okay. I'm a bit perplexed that you don't have that information, because that's the allegation, which I'm sure you've seen.

Mr Collard : Actually, I received confirmation on Monday 7 February that what I'd be responding to would be the allegations of 2 February. That was my understanding. There was also a suggestion about treatment of these workers. To be honest, our decision on 31 January was to ask MADEC if they could please move on five workers due to nonattendance. I didn't look into it the next week to see if that action had been taken up.

Senator CANAVAN : Okay, we'll move to that. I saw that your evidence is that on 31 January you were notified that both Talipope and Aleki, who appeared today, were among five workers who wanted to be relocated. This is to either of you. I don't know how it works internally, but when was the decision made to seek relocation? When did you decide that they should be relocated? You received the request on 31 January. That's the evidence you provided us. I'm assuming that's correct. When, on or after 31 January, did you decide, 'Okay, we'll no longer have these workers and we'll seek to relocate them,'? When was that decision made?

Mr Burt : From a MADEC perspective, when we received notice on 31 January that Sunny Ridge wanted the workers removed from that farm, from that point, we were resigned to the fact that we'd need to relocate them to somewhere else. They remained in our employment, but we were going to be under an obligation then, in conjunction with the Department of Foreign Affairs' approval process, to find an alternative host employer.

Senator CANAVAN : Do you have to notify the department of a relocation when you want to do that?

Mr Burt : Yes. Typically an incident will be lodged with the department of foreign affairs, and we then need to seek their approval for what would be an appropriate alternative. That approval process can take a number of weeks after we've been able to source an alternative location.

Senator CANAVAN : When did you notify the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that you wanted to relocate these workers?

Mr Burt : I can't confirm on what date we did, but I certainly can confirm that we were in communication with them on the matter.

Senator CANAVAN : Was it before or after the hearing on 2 February?

Mr Burt : I couldn't confirm that without going and checking some records.

Senator CANAVAN: Could you take on notice when you did notify the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade?

Mr Burt : Yes, certainly.

Senator CANAVAN: Just to be clear, you said you made the decision to relocate on 31 January. When you received the request, the decision was made.

Mr Burt : Yes. We had no alternative. We couldn't put them back onto the Sunny Ridge farm. We needed to find an alternative, which we now have.

Senator CANAVAN: I just find that some of your evidence seems inconsistent. You told me earlier that you didn't know whether they were scheduled to work the first week of February, yet now you're telling me that you'd made a decision on 31 January to relocate them, so why would you have been unclear about whether they were scheduled to work in the first week of February?

Mr Burt : What I'm unclear about is whether Sunny Ridge farm had, prior to 31 January, set a roster to specify what that work program looked like into the future. What I am clear about is that, on 31 January, we were told that the workers would have to relocate to somewhere else. Whether there was a future roster or not that had been set by Sunny Ridge for them, at that point, obviously, we resigned ourselves to the fact that we'd have to relocate them and that there would be no further work there for them.

Senator CANAVAN: Thank you for that, gentlemen.

CHAIR: Senator Grogan.

Senator GROGAN: This morning, Ms Sauiluma-Duggan gave us some information about the Samoan high commissioner and an interview on the radio where he allegedly made some comments about the intervention of a liaison officer to ensure that the Samoan workers that are the subject to this conversation did not have their employment terminated. Is that true?

Mr Burt : The Samoan liaison officer didn't approach MADEC and beg us, as was the suggestion, not to terminate workers. Termination of the workers from MADEC's employment hadn't been contemplated. The Samoan liaison officer has confirmed to me that he didn't advise the Samoan high commissioner of that having occurred, so we're really left a little clueless as to what has transpired there, but the workers were never scheduled for dismissal. We didn't contemplate dismissal; relocation was our only concern.

Senator GROGAN: Do you have any idea why, then, the matter would have been raised by the high commissioner?

Mr Burt : No. I can't presume to understand why that's happened. We've certainly conveyed our concerns in that regard to the department of foreign affairs and requested that they take that up with the high commission to unpack what has gone on there.

Senator GROGAN: I'm sure you can understand the concerns of this committee. We're having quite robust evidence being provided by all sides and it does not match up, so we're really trying to understand what other things might be at play or what issues might be arising. Your correspondence to the committee on 10 February refers to one of the issues allegedly raised by the high commissioner in that radio interview—the issue of repatriation. Your letter says: 'MADEC staff that are responsible for the Sunny Ridge assignment have advised that they cannot recall having discussed repatriation with the Samoan workers.' Maybe this is just a point of clarity, but the term 'cannot recall' seems less than robust, in the sense that the conversation that could have been had would have had to have been had in the last six to seven days; they returned to the farm on 3 February and the letter was received by the committee on 10 February. If they cannot recall, is that because there's some doubt in regard to how the conversation flowed?

Mr B urt : No, not at all. We don't threaten people with repatriation. Repatriation is something that generally is subject to worker choice at the moment, and, even when workers do choose to repatriate, it's a little bit challenging, with the receiving countries routinely closing their borders at the moment. We're under no doubt about that action. We didn't threaten anyone with repatriation. We didn't talk to anyone about repatriation. In hindsight, I should have used stronger words in my reply.

Senator GROGAN: You say that you don't think it would even have been discussed. Maybe, if it was not put as a direct, 'This is a potential consequence' or 'This is a consequence,' it would have been put to them as, 'These are some of the things that sometimes happen'? Is there wriggle room in there for someone to have said something at all, do you believe?

Mr Burt : It's difficult to contemplate that that could happen. Our staff that are involved on the front line aren't involved in repatriation processes. The bulk of the repatriation exercises and approvals are coordinated from a central level. If there was any possibility of repatriation being something that was happening, we would have known about it centrally. I just can't imagine that anyone would be having that conversation. These workers have only been in Australia for 12 weeks. They're not even close to finishing the nine months that they've been assigned for. We just don't early-repatriate people. I can't speak for why anyone would even consider a conversation like that.

Senator GROGAN: Okay. That clears up nothing! No offence to you, but we are hearing a lot of conflicting evidence here. You said in some earlier correspondence to the committee, Mr Burt, that Sunny Ridge farm had formed the view that the workers had absconded while they were in Canberra providing evidence to the committee. Again, this is a point where we're seeing two very robust opposing positions. The workers have confirmed to us today that they did tell their team leader on 30 January that they were going to come to the Senate inquiry and that they would be returning on Thursday 3 February. Mrs Sauiluma-Duggan also told us that she spoke with Rob Hay on 31 January, in a phone conversation, and advised him that she was on her way from the airport and was approximately 20 minutes away, to pick up the workers. That sounds like there were two different, very separate pieces of advice from the workers to be relayed up the food chain that you're saying did not occur. Is that right?

Mr Burt : Speaking to the contact with Rob Hay, our communication from Rob Hay was that he was under the belief that the workers had absconded, a belief that typically is formed when people are absent from work, absent from their accommodation, aren't contactable and are absent without any notice. That's the first I've heard that there is an alleged conversation between Ms Duggan and Rob Hay on the 31st. I'd have to follow that up with Rob to investigate the veracity of that. Based on previous statements that Rob has made, that doesn't sound correct.

Senator GROGAN: If you could take that on notice and just confirm whether Mr Hay did or did not have a conversation with Mrs Sauiluma-Duggan on the 31st, whether he did or did not say that he would wait 20 minutes for her to arrive from the airport and whether he did or did not receive information from her that the workers were going to Canberra to appear in front of the Senate committee—or for any reason—that would be really helpful.

Mr Burt : Absolutely.

Senator GROGAN: The other piece here is in reference to your letter to the committee of 10 February which references advice from the Sunny Ridge HR manager on 31 January to relocate six Samoan workers because they were disengaged from work and not attending on the scheduled days of picking, which was placing pressure on the operation. Just earlier, Mr Collard talked about absentee dates, which I'll just get you to reclarify in a moment, but, in looking at the information provided by you regarding the activities of the two workers who presented, Aleki and Talipope, I note that in the last three weeks of January they both worked well over 40 hours a week, and in the first week of January they worked very close to 40 hours a week, at 39.5, and in one of those weeks, indeed, they were working 48 hours. Can you explain to me how that is a disengagement? If you were advised on 31 January that they had requested a relocation and that Sunny Ridge believed that they were disengaged—those two things don't seem to make sense to me: that they were both disengaged and working over 40 hours a week.

Mr Collard : Is that a question to me?

Senator GROGAN: Well, Mr Burt, these are your records of hours, but, Mr Collard, it's your request, apparently, to have them relocated because they're disengaged and not paying attention in the workplace.

Mr Collard : I'll provide my reply. If you look at that spreadsheet that was submitted, you'll note that the pay run for the period we're talking about was actually 2 February 2022 and you'll see that their hours drop right off. So the week before, it's 48.03 and 47.95 hours for Aleki and Talipope respectively, and then you will see those hours drop off to 22.67 and 7.25. That's the period we're referring to and the period I listed those dates of absence from scheduled work.

Senator GROGAN: So you would make that determination in the space of less than a week—

Mr Collard : If I can explain: from a grower's perspective, and particularly in the summer months, we obviously don't have the right to determine when our fruit is ripening on the plant. We are under pressure, and we have scheduled labour there to pick specific blocks. If that fruit is not picked—and, for strawberries, there's often a 24-hour to 48-hour window, and, if it's warmer, that window could be reduced—we don't get a second chance. So it is vital for us that labour does present itself when it's been scheduled to work—present on that day. So our tolerance is, unfortunately, not like maybe other industries within this country. We have one shot at picking our fruit, and if we don't get that opportunity then, unfortunately, it becomes wastage or it's rejected by the major retailers.

Senator GROGAN: Then, Mr Burt, did you provide additional workers from 1 February to Mr Collard?

Mr Burt : Not that quickly, I don't believe. I think we might have redeployed some additional workers in the last week or so, but I can't speak categorically on that. We didn't swap other workers in at that time, I don't believe.

Senator GROGAN: Mr Collard, you asked for those workers to be removed. Given the importance, which you've just outlined for us, of picking of your fruit, which I totally understand, how did you go about filling those shifts?

Mr Collard : It's difficult. I can tell you that from 22 December through all of January we struggled with COVID and positive cases and the definition of a 'close contact', so it has been a struggle for the last few months. What we will normally do is make calls to labour hire companies or talk to our other seasonal worker providers to see if we can pick up additional resources, or we have to manage by determining what labour we allocate to maybe our raspberry or blueberry blocks, which are present up on the Seville farm, and whether we have to make sacrifices across the three berries that we're picking at the time. It's a management issue and it's not desirable. The optimum for us is for the workers that are scheduled to be there on the day to actually present themselves on the day.

Senator GROGAN: Again, going back to this spreadsheet, there are other weeks where the hours are quite low. Is that because you didn't have the fruit to pick, or is that because they didn't work?

Mr Collard : Back in November it was definitely because the volume of fruit was low. I'm just looking at the spreadsheet and looking at the other hours. In regard to, say, the week of 8 December 2021 specifically, I would have to liaise with my team and check what the environmental conditions were that week and whether it was one of unauthorised absenteeism or one dictated to by environmental factors.

Senator GROGAN: I appreciate what you're saying. It does seem hasty to have advised that you wanted them moved on 31 January when they had been working 40-odd hours the week before. Mr Collard, you wrote to the committee shortly after the hearing to, in your words, correct the record, which is totally your right. That letter has been published on the committee's website, obviously with the personal details redacted. As you note, the workers at Sunny Ridge are actually employees of MADEC—

Mr Collard : Yes.

Senator GROGAN: which is how the program works. But, you are obviously an employer and, in the way your employment relationship works, you still have obligations to these workers as a PCBU, a person conducting a business or undertaking, under the workplace health and safety laws. You are aware of that?

Mr Collard : Yes.

Senator GROGAN: Beyond your statutory obligations, do you also take an interest in their welfare? Obviously, as you would know, there are a lot of things being thrown up here, in terms of pay, deductions and wellbeing. What's your approach to that, accepting that MADEC is the employer? Do you take an interest in those things?

Mr Collard : We absolutely do, and if it's raised with the Sunny Ridge management at the time, then our management will liaise with MADEC to follow up those concerns. We're very conscious of our requirement to provide a safe workplace, and we take that very seriously and we implement that. In regard to pastoral care or accommodation, if those issues are raised with our management, then our management will liaise with MADEC.

Senator GROGAN: Can you recall a time when you have had cause to approach MADEC about that?

Mr Collard : I can recall that we had a situation when I first started as managing director where I believe a few MADEC workers were querying their tray rates for a day. We shared that information with MADEC, as they're the ones who are providing the pay advice, and followed up with that. We are always happy to be transparent on gross payments and hours worked, because it's our responsibility to record and share that with not only the picker but also MADEC as the employer.

Senator GROGAN: Do you provide those pay records to MADEC and to the workers, or just MADEC?

Mr Collard : It's provided to MADEC but then put in the pay advice to the worker.

Mr Burt : I can also confirm—further to that question posed to Matthew—that our frontline staff are in regular contact with respect to the daily activities on the farm, and we certainly take any issues that are raised with us back to the farm as well, and we troubleshoot and problem-solve those issues also. So there's frontline collaboration in that regard. I'm confident of that.

Senator GROGAN: Just to finish up, I ask that you provide us with those breakdowns of day-by-day work for the two workers, Talipope and Aleki, because it doesn't seem to gel—the speed at which you chose to have them removed based on your assertion that they were disengaging from work. So, if we can compare that, that would be very helpful. Back to you, Chair.

CHAIR: I'm mindful of time, so I just have one question. Mr Collard, there was a letter from Mr Alston, the chair of Sunny Ridge, to the Fair Work Commission where he complains that having to pay workers the national minimum wage, the lowest wage payable to any employee in Australia, is 'generous, high, and massive'. Do you agree with Mr Alston that paying the minimum wage to employees is generous?

Mr Collard : I don't have that document in front of me. I'll take what you have just said. I guess what I can say is that we make sure we comply with the legislative requirements and the piece rates. It's commercial logic that we would like our pickers to be remunerated and to earn the maximum dollars they can, which would mean that our productivity and our volume of fruit pick are high. I don't have any objections to the piece rate. We're conscious of the new legislation coming in on 28 April.

CHAIR: Thank you. I have a final question. In your letter, one of the main issues that you have been asked to speak about today in the evidence provided by workers on 2 February. In some weeks, they have worked more than 60 hours at Sunny Ridge and, after deductions, have taken home just $100 for 60 hours work. There's a disagreement between you and the workers as to how many hours were worked for the $100 in take-home pay. They say it was 60 hours, which would be just $1.60 per hour. You say that actually they only worked 30.38 hours that week, which would be $3.29 an hour in take-home pay We're not here to work out how many hours were worked, but, if we are arguing about the difference between earning $1.60 an hour and earning $3.29 an hour, there's clearly a problem, isn't there?

Mr Collard : Senator, sorry. I just want to point out that that was 19.75 hours for that week in question.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Mr Collard : In regard to gross pay, I have, on the records I have submitted to the committee, $501.85 of gross payment, and then MADEC's provided the deductions that gave you the $100 net.

CHAIR: Yes, so the take-home pay was $100. There was an occasion when the hours of work were 30.38 hours and the take-home pay was $100, wasn't there?

Mr Collard : Is this for Aleki or Talipope?

CHAIR: I understand it is Talipope.

Mr Collard : I can see on that spreadsheet that Aleki, in the week of 8 December 2021, did a total of 30.38 hours, for which we paid him $937.20. Then, with MADEC's deductions and the tax, he netted $100 for the week.

CHAIR: Thank you. Back to my final question: if we're arguing about the difference between earning $1.60 an hour and earning $3.29 an hour, there's clearly a problem, isn't there?

Mr Collard : What I believe personally is that the apples-for-apples benchmark should be the gross amount paid for the hours worked. When we get into deductions, that's a separate matter. So, if we're comparing exploitation in a country where we look at gross pay for hours worked or job description, the deductions, as I believe Laurence has posed, are high in the first 10 weeks because there are things such as reimbursement for returned airfares, but, from a grower's perspective, we're responsible for the gross payment, and the gross payment, as far as I'm concerned, was $937 to Aleki that week for 30.38 hours work.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Collard. It seems to me that—and this as to the system across the board—when people are taking home just $100 a week for that many hours, there's something fundamentally wrong with the system. It does need a proper look-at. That's not an expectation that any Australian worker would have—to be taking only $100 a week home—which means the system needs to be overhauled. But thank you very much for your evidence. I appreciate both of you coming and joining us today. If you've taken any questions on notice, please provide the response to the secretariat by midday, Friday 17 March 2022. Thank you for your evidence today. The committee will now suspend.

Proceedings suspended from 12:36 to 12:45