Covino under spotlight

LONGFORD’S Covino Farms, which has been placed under the national spotlight this week over allegations of foreign worker exploitation, has defended itself, saying it takes worker welfare and safety seriously.

The business was named in a Four Corners investigation as one of a number of large Australian businesses to have indirectly employed allegedly exploited foreign workers.

The report, broadcast on the ABC on Monday night, outlined an alarming trend of foreign workers being underpaid and overworked.

Covino Farms, one of the nation’s largest suppliers and producers of fruit and vegetables, was named as one of the biggest businesses with ties to dodgy labour hire agencies.

In a statement responding to the allegations, Covino Farms said it was common place for organisations in the industry to have agreements to source their workers from labour hire agencies.

“Covino Farms takes the issue of worker welfare and safety extremely seriously,” the statement said.

“As part of all agreements, the labour provider must ensure that all workers are paid in accordance with the National Employment Standards.

“Covino does not condone any form of underpayment of workers.”

The organisation, which employs up to 200 workers during its peak summer season, supplies its produce to supermarket chains including Coles, Woolworths and Aldi, as well as fast food giant KFC.

In addition to the accusations of labour exploitation, the Four Corners investigation also revealed that the business had received up to 30 Worksafe improvement notices in the past seven years for breaches of workplace health and safety, all of which had been complied with by Covino.

Covino Farms has recently severed ties with its major labour provider, Chompran Enterprises, which was accused of siphoning up to $2 million each year from employees to put into its own pockets.

In its statement, Covino said it was working with authorities to ensure it operated within the law.

“Covino works within the law, and in conjunction with the Fair Work Ombudsman to monitor these agreements,” its statement read.

“Covino has been assisting the Fair Work Ombudsman in its investigations into Chompran Enterprises and a range of other suppliers to the industry.

“As a result of the investigations, Covino has recently terminated its agreement with Chompran.

“Chompran has been a contractor to Covino since June 2014.”

Covino Farms originated in 1972 near Pakenham, before moving to Longford in 1993.

In November 2013, the salad giant received a $1.5 million grant from the Victorian government to assist it in expanding its business throughout the nation.

Following Monday night’s Four Corners report, Victoria’s peak farming lobby group, the Victorian Farmers’ Federation, released a statement saying that there was no place in the industry for farmers who exploit their workers.

“We won’t accept the exploitation of any worker,” VFF president Peter Tuohey said.

“It’s the very reason the VFF’s workplace relations team has been running forums for the past two years educating farmers on their legal obligations to workers.”

The VFF statement said many of its farmers paid workers at above award rates and the actions of a few employers should not be a reflection of the entire industry.

The current state government announced an inquiry into labour hire among a number of promises given in the lead up to last year’s Victorian election.

In a statement released in response to the Four Corners report, the Andrews government said the terms of reference for the inquiry would be announced in the coming weeks, with the investigation set to get underway in the second half of this year.