Fair Work Ombudsman finds fault with labour suppliers to Murray Bridge meat processor Thomas Foods International

Thomas Foods International (TFI) has pledged to audit its hiring practices after an inquiry found evidence of unscrupulous dealings by some of its labour suppliers.

Of five agencies which supplied workers to the Murray Bridge meat works, the Fair Work Ombudsman’s inquiry found, three subcontracted hiring work out to other companies.

In some cases, those companies existed only on paper and subcontracted out to yet other companies.

"The inquiry encountered difficulties in locating and contacting representatives of certain contractors in the supply chains," the ombudsman reported.

"On repeated occasions fair work investigators attended registered business premises ... only to discover no business was being conducted at these premises."

The lack of transparency increased the risk of worker exploitation.

The director of one labour hire agency, NRL International, told the inquiry she did not know where the workers she supplied had come from, how they were paid, how much they were paid or whether they received pay slips.

The ombudsman cautioned one contractor, Redwood Pty Ltd, for not granting full-time workers holidays or personal leave.

The 90 meat workers it employed were effectively casuals, but paid $2.20 per hour less than the casual rate.

The inquiry also found some labour hire companies were wrongly classifying backpackers as independent contractors instead of employees.

As a consequence, they were denied overtime pay despite working up to 50 hours per week, did not receive superannuation, and their wages were not taxed.

In response to the inquiry, TFI introduced worker induction packs in 15 languages and began taking responsibility for educating all staff – directly or indirectly employed – about their rights.

Broadly, the Fair Work Ombudsman found local 417 visa workers were being more severely exploited, and having a worse time, than those elsewhere.

The ombudsman recovered more than $113,000 in unpaid wages on behalf of 57 workers from the River Murray and South East last financial year.

The amount recovered per worker was higher here than elsewhere in SA.

In addition, a higher percentage of visa holders in SA described their experiences as fair to poor.

Note: An earlier version of this story neglected to mention the inquiry was conducted by the Fair Work Ombudsman until further down the page.