Rachel Mackenzie Growcom CREDIT Mike Lamond_Fairfax media

Rachel Mackenzie, Growcom chief advocate Image credit: Mike Lamond (Fairfax media)

Worker exploitation is the ‘live export’ issue for the horticulture industry, Rachel Mackenzie, chief advocate at Growcom, told the 2017 Freshcare Forum in Sydney.

Damning media reports, together with high-profile convictions by the Fair Work Ombudsman, have inflicted huge reputational damage on the industry, leading to inquiries into modern slavery; the black economy; corporate avoidance of the Fair Work Act; and the migrant worker taskforce.

'Our social licence is massively compromised by stories of worker exploitation,' Mackenzie told the forum. 'We can be as clean and green as we like, but if we are mean no-one will support us.'

Amid warnings of a costly consumer backlash, Growcom formed a partnership with Freshcare and the Fair Work Ombudsman to deal with the problem.

The result is the Fair Farms Initiative, a ground-breaking nationwide scheme to ensure that all workers are treated fairly while working on horticultural farms and in packing sheds. The Fair Farms Initiative is a proactive move by the horticulture industry to get on top of the problem of worker exploitation before a solution can be imposed on it from outside.

In an effort to manage their commercial risk, retailers have been rolling out the UK Sedex programme, which is not particularly relevant in the Australian context, Mackenzie said. The certification being developed through Fair Farms will enable growers to meet their Australian Fair Work compliance obligations.

Another speaker keen to see the industry tackle its own problems was Charles Cameron, the CEO of the Recruitment and Consulting Services Association. Cameron expressed concern that a government licensing system, as opposed to an industry-owned and run certification program, would become a ‘superhighway’ for industrial interests (such as unions) to impose their own agendas.

As head of RCSA, Cameron is a strong advocate for StaffSure, a workforce services certification program designed to enable business to engage labour hire and workforce contracting firms that treat workers well with integrity. Noting that growers are often unwitting partners in the exploitation of workers by labour-hire companies, Cameron argued that the objective of StaffSure was for growers to be able to ask labour-hire firms, 'Are you certified?'

Both StaffSure and the Fair Farms Initiative recognise the need to accommodate an increasingly flexible workforce. Funded by the Fair Work Ombudsman, the Fair Farms Initiative promises to support growers with the tools and knowledge not just to implement fair and lawful employment practices but to demonstrate their compliance to customers and the wider community. In this way, Mackenzie said, it fulfils an essential requirement to ‘give something back’ to growers.

Education and compliance – both legal and customer-driven - will be crucial to its success. Training for the initiative will make use of Hort360, an online, modular farm management system that offers growers a ‘whole of farm’ health check. A team of Freshcare trainers will educate growers and the scheme will be third-party audited. Growers who are certified by Freshcare will have confidence they are Fair Work compliant.

As always, certification comes at a cost, both in time and money.

It was the desire to keep costs down, Rachel Mackenzie told the forum, that led Growcom to develop the Fair Farms Initiative in partnership with Freshcare. Compliance would ultimately improve the bottom line for growers, she said, as non-compliant businesses would have no place in the supply chain, enabling good operators to maintain their access.

Growers have already come forward to pilot the programme and the initiative has been well received by the media and government.

Nobody welcomes another certification but in this case, Mackenzie said, the early signs are all good.