Australia apple packhouse labour

The Australian Workers' Union, Transport Workers' Union and Shop Distributive and Allied Employees' Association have formed an alliance, calling for a royal commission into the fruit and vegetable industry, claiming it has the worst exploitation of any workforce in Australia.

The ABC reports the federal government will not support a royal commission, and despite acknowledging 'issues in the sector', the National Farmers' Federation said the call is 'another example of union grandstanding'.

The alliance claims to represent each sector of the retail supply chain, and highlighted that several state inquiries, academic studies and the damning Harvest Trail Inquiry by the Fair Work Ombudsman have not done enough to clean up the horticulture sector.

'From violence to harassment, to passports being taken off, to forced slavery, to 76 workers living in a single house, forced to work 12-hour days, seven days a week, ' AWU national secretary Dan Walton said.

'This industry has been getting worse, not better. Enough is enough. We need a royal commission into this industry. We need to shine a spotlight into the deepest and darkest corners of it, to clear it up once and for all,' he added.

In a statement to the ABC, the National Farmers' Federation said it acknowledged there were issues within the sector, but it would not support a royal commission.

'Rather than wasting more time studying the problems, we need to get on with solving them,' it said.

The NFF referred to several recent inquiries into farm labour, including the Migrant Worker Task Force, the Fair Work Ombudsman's Harvest Trail Inquiry, the University of Adelaide's two-year investigation led by Dr Joanna Howe.

'A royal commission would not uncover any other material issues that these reports have not already done so,' it said.

'Industry and government energies would be better spent on establishing national labour-hire regulation, promoting accreditation programmes, promoting the new Commonwealth initiatives to assist growers and employees to understand their rights and obligations, and engaging with the soon-to-be-completed National Agriculture Workforce Strategy.'

Agriculture minister David Littleproud said the government promoted fair work practices across the horticulture industry.

'The Australian government has zero tolerance for worker exploitation and has taken steps to strengthen the Fair Work Ombudsman and boost penalties,' Littleproud said.

'Instances of poor practices hurt the reputation of the industry and generalisations of the industry is not accurate or productive,' he said.

Shadow Agriculture Minister Julie Collins did not confirm if the opposition supported the unions call for a royal commission, but said she was concerned about the 'poor working conditions of some fruit pickers'.