Covino defends employment restructure

COVINO Farms has defended the new structure it set up to employ workers following revelations from the ABC’s Four Corners program.

The ABC alleged that the day following severing its ties with disgraced labour hire firm Chompram, co-owner of Covino Farms, Steven Covino, registered a new company named Horticultural Employment Services Pty Ltd.

Documents obtained by the ABC listed Mr Huor as Mr Covino’s co-director and equal shareholder.

The company documents were lodged with ASIC on behalf of Mr Covino, Mr Huor and a third co-director Soon Huat Ng.

However a spokesman for Covino Farms stated the business’s structural description was the result of a mistake and Mr Huor was neither a director nor a shareholder but an employee.

“In setting up Horticulture Employment Services, our primary concerns were for the welfare of the workers on our farms, and ensuring that we could continue to supply the finest quality vegetables to our customers,” he said

Horticulture Employment Services now directly employs the workers on Covino Farms previously provided by Chompram and other labour hire businesses.

“This has provided these workers with certainty of employment, and ensures they are paid in accordance with the National Employment Standards.

“In addition to his work at Chompram, former manager Samnang Huor ( Sam), also ran a side business providing accommodation and transportation for these workers.

“The vast majority of workers relied on these services to ensure they had somewhere to live, and were able to get to and from the various farms they were working on. Many do not work exclusively at Covino Farms.

“In terminating Chompram, a real possibility was that the managers would withdraw the accommodation and transport services from these workers, leaving them with no where to live and no way to get to and from work.”

None of these workers had written agreements for the provision of these services, meaning they could be evicted with no notice period.

“Through our negotiations, some compromises had to be made to ensure the workers best interests were met.

“One of these was that managers of two former labour hire businesses Sam and Soon Huat Ng (Andy), from another business were to become non-voting shareholders of Horticulture Employment Services, and were to be offered employment.

“When paperwork was lodged with ASIC forming the company, errors were made by our accountants and both were erroneously listed as directors and shareholders.

“This has now been rectified. As it currently stands, Sam is neither a director or a shareholder. He is purely an employee.

“Andy is a non-voting minority shareholder in Horticulture Employment Services (holding 33 per cent, with the owners of Covino Farms holding the balance).

“The involvement of Sam and Andy is conditional on the outcomes of investigations which are ongoing,” the spokesman said.

In a statement provided to the Gippsland Times,  Covino Farms said investigations had been re-opened into all aspects of the labour hire firms operations, including transport and accommodation and they had been stood down pending the investigation taking place.

Accusations made against Mr Huor have previously been investigated by the police with no evidence of wrongdoing proven.

The spokesman said if that were to change Covino would act immediately.

“Until then, we do uphold the basic Australian value of allowing presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

“There are other organisations who stand to gain who are clearly driving an agenda with Sam, and to a lesser extent Covino.

The company structure for Horticultural Employment Services was not our first option, however for our workers welfare, this was the best outcome that we could achieve at the time,” the spokesman said.

He stated the new company would ensure staff were paid in accordance with the NES, with monies earned paid directly into their bank accounts.

“They are free to choose how they spend their money including where they live and how they get to work.”