Migrant workers from Vanuatu complained over their treatment by Perfection Fresh predecessor, D'Vine Ripe Photo: James Elsby

Migrant farm workers take on one of Australia’s richest families, the Smorgons

Migrant farm workers are taking on one of Australia’s richest families, the Smorgons, in what could be the first major strike in the farm sector for many decades.

The workers and a union are seeking better pay and conditions at giant glasshouses north of Adelaide at a company majority owned by a Smorgon-family investment company.

Ejaz Ali, who gave evidence in the Fair Work Commission asking to be allowed to go on strike over conditions at Perfection Fresh in Adelaide Photo: James Elsby

Strikes are almost non-existent in the farm sector, which is overwhelmingly non-union. On Friday, three migrant workers appeared in the Fair Work Commission to argue that they were genuinely representing their co-workers and wanted to strike.

One worker, Ejaz Ali, speaking through a Hazaragi interpreter, said he was representing up to 50 workers and that they were prepared to strike so they “could demand our rights”. He said workers “had a lot of differences” with their employer, Perfection Fresh.

Migrant workers from Vanuatu complained over their treatment by Perfection Fresh predecessor, D’Vine Ripe Photo: James Elsby

Two other workers, Ram Sharma and Umeed Mahrie​, also gave evidence in support of a strike ballot that includes the option to take unlimited and 24 hour strikes.

The company employs about 440 workers at the Adelaide facility, most of whom are casual and born overseas or refugees. The workers are paid basic minimum wages with no penalty rates or overtime.

Perfection Fresh is a major supplier of tomatoes and cucumbers to Coles and Woolworths but its Adelaide operation has been mired in controversy.

In 2015, an ABC Four Corners report exposed worker underpayment and exploitation at the company, then known as D’Vine Ripe. In response the contract of a labour hire firm was terminated.

More recently, Federal Court action by the National Union of Workers alleged another labour hire firm had unlawfully pressured workers to quit the union. That included workers from Vanuatu who said they were told they would not be able to return to Australia under a seasonal labour program if they did not quit the NUW.

The migrant workers were questioned at length on Friday by a lawyer representing the company, Thomson Geer partner Paul Ronfeldt. He queried whether they had been appointed properly under the law as bargaining representatives or were being controlled by the NUW. The workers denied the NUW controlled them.

Since 2015, the union has been organising the farm sector and has uncovered a litany of abuses and exploitation of workers during its campaign.

But it has run into repeated problems, as it is not the official union of the sector under archaic union coverage rules.The Australian Workers Union is meant to represent farm workers but has not had a meaningful presence for many decades.

NUW national secretary Tim Kennedy said it was the first time in Australia that farm workers, representing hundreds of others, had applied to take protected industrial action.

“Today three workers who have joined our union, and were then independently elected by their workmates to be bargaining reps, stood up in the face of money and power at the Fair Work Commission to answer questions,” he said.

Mr Kennedy said only 70 of 440 workers on site were permanent, and they wanted secure jobs. He said one of the union’s claims was for the right to unpaid leave to allow workers to see their families. Some have not seen family for years.

“Many workers at Perfection Fresh came to Australia as refugees escaping war, conflict or violence and have family living overseas,” Mr Kennedy said.

“These workers fear if they take leave to visit their family, they will not have a job to come back to when they return … unpaid leave for workers would cost the company nothing.”

A company representative did not respond to calls.

The Fair Work Commission is expected to decide by Tuesday on whether to let the strike ballot proceed.

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Ben Schneiders is an investigative reporter at The Age.