THE state government has frozen a $1.5 million grant awarded to Covino Farms in the wake of allegations of unsafe work practices and underpaying of foreign workers.
Agriculture and regional development minister Jaala Pulford told the Parliamentary Accounts and Estimate Committee the grant, awarded in 2013 by the previous state government, had been suspended.
Under the agreement, Covino was required to employ 60 new full time equivalent workers and retain 200 existing jobs.
Last year, the previous Regional Development Minister and Gippsland South MLA Peter Ryan approved a variation to the definition of “employees” in the agreement, to include contract workers.
Ms Pulford confirmed to the parliamentary committee no payments had been made so far to Covino Farms, and that until Covino Farms complied with its legal and contractual responsibilities, funding would be withheld.
Ms Pulford’s decision was described by the government as building on its commitment to stamp out the exploitation of workers in Victoria by rogue labour hire companies, including undertaking an inquiry into sham contracting and phoenix companies.
“I will be making no payment to Covino Farms until and unless I am satisfied that Covino Farms have complied with their legal and contractual employment responsibilities,” she said.
“It is deeply concerning that the former Minister for Regional Development approved a variation to the contract to include contractor workers — despite widespread claims of unfair working conditions for contract workers engaged by rogue labour hire companies.
“I have requested that my department obtains legal advice in regards to the current contract between the Victorian state government and Covino Farms. Upon receiving this advice I will consider the matter further.”
Attempts by the Gippsland Times to talk directly to the owners of Covino Farms were ultimately unsuccessful, however in a statement released to the media, Covino Farms said it was fully committed to creating local jobs and was currently “in discussions with the Victorian Government to ensure that the project is completed and is successful”.
“At this stage, Covino Farms has received no funds from the Victorian government towards the project as the grant is conditional on Covino Farms meeting the agreed project milestones. We are confident of satisfying the government’s requirements,” the Covino Farms’ statement read.
Meanwhile, the federal government will establish a multi-agency taskforce to target contractors who exploit foreign workers and engage in visa fraud.
Eastern Victoria MLC Harriet Shing said no worker should be denied fair workplace terms and conditions.
“The vast majority of Gippsland farmers and businesses that do the right thing shouldn’t be disadvantaged in competing with companies who cut corners,” she said.
“Stamping out workplace exploitation and creating productive and secure jobs for Gippslanders is crucial and the minister’s decision is evidence that we’re serious about protecting workplace rights for Victorians.”
Covino Farms has previously stated it would be a willing participant in a state government inquiry into labour hire, expected to begin in the second half of this year.