Don KRC defends continued use of 'backpacker' visas

Don KR Castlemaine has hired as many as 100 workers on backpacker visas since the start of 2015. Picture: JIM ALDERSEY
Don KR Castlemaine has hired as many as 100 workers on backpacker visas since the start of 2015. Picture: JIM ALDERSEY

DON KR Castlemaine says hiring up to 100 additional workers on the 417 backpacker visa is the only way it can keep up with an increase in demand.

The company confirmed it had continued an arrangement with labour hire agencies to bring in workers on the visa, who now make up about 6 per cent of total hours worked at the Castlemaine factory.

The company had previously hired 30 workers on 417 visas in the lead-up to Christmas, when the factory reaches peak production capacity.

Don KR Castlemaine managing director Stuart Grainger told the Bendigo Advertiser the company had given local people the opportunity to take on these casual positions.

"Of course, everyone knows someone who was knocked back for a job," he said.

"When we conduct interviews, we look at whether people can meet food safety requirements, and attendance requirements.

"We've been really impressed with the workers we have brought in."

Mr Grainger said they had "advertised widely" looking for new workers to help the company keep up with increased production, up 25 per cent on this time last year.

The 417 Working Holiday visa is for people aged 18 to 30 and allows work for up to 12 months in Australia.

It is designed to "encourage cultural exchange and closer ties between Australia and eligible countries".

Workers on the visa at Don KR Castlemaine are believed to mostly be from Taiwan.

Mr Grainger said the number of workers brought in on the visa was a "drop in the ocean" of their total workforce.

"It's enabled us to meet the current level of demand," he said.

"We would be a in a pretty poor situation without the ability to bring in these workers."

A group of the workers had been living in cabins in Maldon in the pre-Christmas period, but had been relocated over a long weekend period.

Mr Grainger said accommodation and conditions were both matters for the labour hire company, but Don KR Castlemaine regularly audited living arrangements for 417 visa holders.

He said use of the visa was widespread in the meat industry.

The union representing meat industry workers says processors, particularly in regional areas, are facing increased pressure from the price war between Coles and Woolworths.

Meat Industry Employees Union Victoria secretary Paul Conway met with Don KR Castlemaine management on Wednesday to discuss concerns from members in the workplace about the company's use of 417 visa holders.

Most concerns involved diminishing opportunities for weekend and public holiday work.

Mr Conway said the meeting was "productive" and Don KR Castlemaine needed to match the practices of its competitors.

"For Don KRC, all of their competitors are based in the city and can utilise a very large casual labour force," he said.

"Their biggest competitors all use more 417s through their labour force.

"This isn't isolated in Castlemaine. There are a number of processors in country towns in Victoria utilising 417's, who are doing the exact same thing."

Mr Conway said he would definitely support an inquiry into the 417 visa system.

"It's going to be a growing concern. These workers are less likely to make complaints about conditions. They are less likely to put in incident reports," he said.

"I have no reason to doubt the integrity of Don KR Castlemaine."

Concerns over the visa have been raised across the northern Victorian fruit industry, prompting the Fair Work Ombudsman to launch a review.

Complaints focused primarily on wages and conditions. Backpackers are required to work for 88 days in a regional area to qualify for a one-year visa extension.

Mr Conway said labour hire companies were providing meat processing companies with workers on the visa from countries in Asia.

He said it was a response to the "squeeze" being felt in the industry from the supermarket price war.

"There are a number of factors that have made meat companies go down this road, not the least is that they are supplying to Woolworths and Coles," Mr Conway said.

"Coles' 'Down Down' campaign in keeping prices down is putting duress on their processors.

"They have been boxed into a corner in a competitive market place."


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