Rural

Mushroom pickers testify over alleged $646k underpayment

Marland Mushrooms' growing facility at Stapyllton
Marland Mushrooms' growing facility at Stapyllton

A TAIWANESE student has testified it was difficult to consistently pick high volumes of mushrooms at a plant now under scrutiny for allegedly underpaying more than 400 workers $646,000.

Jia-Sing Chen, who called herself Diana while in Australia, was one of several workers who made complaints about Marland Mushrooms to the Fair Work Ombudsmen.

"If you were working in a room where the harvest was really good, you could do about 20 kilos per hour. If you are working in a room where it's not so good, you could only get about 4 kilograms per hour," she said through an interpreter.

But under questioning from Marland Mushrooms' defence barrister Robert Bain, Ms Chen agreed there were times when there were not enough pickers to harvest the amount of mushrooms being produced.

Labour hire provider HRS Country owner Tao Hu has admitted during the trial in Federal Court she knew workers were being underpaid but Marland Mushrooms owner Troy Marland maintains he was unaware.

The National Farmers Federation is an intervener on the case, saying the trial could set a precedent about farm-worker awards because it will test whether piece rates paid in horticulture are successful.

On Monday, the court heard two Fair Work inspectors met with Mr Marland and Mr Hu in February 2014 to explain the mushroom pickers' wages of 60-80 cents a kilogram picked was well short of the 91 cents a kilogram they should have been earning.

Today barrister Justin Bourke presented five witnesses as part of the Fair Work Ombudsman's case, all of whom worked at the Staplyton farm, south of Brisbane.

Former mushroom picker Jin Singh Jiahn, a Taiwanese farmer who called herself Fei while in Australia, told the court through an interpreter her supervisor had praised her for her quick ability to competently pick mushrooms.

Fei made a complaint to the Fair Work Ombudsman on pay rates HRS Country provided while she was at Marland Mushrooms in December 2013. 

Mr Bain asked her to confirm if her complaint suggested Korean backpackers were given preference for higher wages and benefits over Taiwanese pickers, which she agreed with.

However, when asked by Mr Bourke to explain her complaint she responded: "I was trying to complain that we were not being paid for what we were doing, we were being paid too little."

The trial, which sits before Judge Darryl Rangiah, continues tomorrow.

Topics:  agriculture fair work ombudsman farmers horticulture marland mushrooms mushrooms piece rates


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