MADEC Australia to conduct audit, refund farm workers after housing standards breached

The labour hire watchdog has stopped short of revoking the licence of a major contractor despite a finding that it procured “substandard” and “overcrowded” housing.

MADEC Australia, which supplies housing for the labourers it hires out to farms, came under fire earlier this year when a federal government inquiry heard allegations the company’s accommodation arrangements were not up to scratch.

MADEC deducts a percentage of each worker’s salary to cover the cost of the accommodation and has been ordered to refund those charges.

MADEC has already repaid close to $70,000 to its labour-hire workers.

The Senate Committee on Job Security was told foreign farm workers in regional Victoria were being overcharged for their living expenses and had been put up in unsuitable boarding rooms, including some without an air conditioner or fan.

The revelations prompted the Labour Hire Authority (LHA) to conduct compliance checks at MADEC accommodation premises, where inspectors observed multiple breaches of minimum standards, including overcrowding in situations where too many people were being squeezed into a room.

In light of the investigation, MADEC will be required to audit all of its housing arrangements to ensure they are fit for purpose, but the LHA chose not to cancel the firm’s licence because it had been cooperative and was taking steps to rectify the issues identified.

MADEC was investigated after overseas seasonal workers gave evidence to a Senate hearing in Canberra. (ABC News)

Safety issues reported in Mildura

Labour Hire Licensing Commissioner Steve Dargavel said workforce providers should view the MADEC case as “a cautionary tale”.

“When it comes to providers’ legal obligations to labour-hire workers, the legislation is clear: providers must comply or face licensing action,” he said.

“A loss of licence is a very real consequence of non-compliance with the Labour Hire Licensing Act 2018.”

In a separate matter, Commissioner Dargavel said the regulator was also investigating a number of suspected breaches of the act after inspectors visited farms and boarding rooms across Mildura, in far north-west Victoria.

“Workers were being overcharged for accommodation, and living spaces were overcrowded and unhygienic,” he said.

“We found barbecues set up inside houses, which is clearly a very significant safety issue.”

At one property, which the LHA believes is linked to a labour-hire provider, inspectors noted “a strong smell of gas” before observing a modified camp stove being fuelled by gas bottles next to an open flame.

The regulator said it was also following up on evidence of non-compliance with other legal obligations, including recent amendments to piece work requirements and alleged failures to withhold tax, pay superannuation entitlements and provide pay slips.

The LHA said it had reported concerns about potentially unregistered rooming houses operating in Mildura to the local council.

In a statement, a council spokesperson said all complaints made about the safety of worker accommodation were “thoroughly investigated” and that the council had “many tools available” to ensure compliance with the relevant legislation.

MADEC has been contacted for comment.