I wish to raise a matter with the Minister for Regional and Rural Development, and the action I seek is that he provide a detailed brief to concerned residents of Gippsland regarding substantial allegations raised locally in regard to Covino Farms Pty Ltd and the government’s decision last year to provide Covino Farms with a $1.5 million grant through the Regional Growth Fund.
A number of concerns have been raised in the community about this company’s activities. There have been investigations. In recent years the Environment Protection Authority Victoria has issued fines against the company. WorkSafe Victoria has investigated the company and issued provisional improvement notices against it. Currently the Fair Work ombudsman has an investigation under way into dodgy workplace practices and environmental breaches at Covino Farms.
I understand that some of these allegations about poor workplace performance and bad environmental conduct by Covino Farms were raised with the minister and his electorate office staff directly prior to Covino Farms being given the $1.5 million grant in November last year. Specifically I am referring to communications from a range of locals, including Kevin O’Brien, Tony Dawkins and Ray Shingles. Emma Field, a local journalist, has raised many questions directly with the minister’s office and in the Weekly Times.
Allegations against Covino Farms include repeatedly using overseas workers who do not have proper working visas, and there have been many complaints and investigations undertaken by the federal Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Many of these workers were supplied by contract companies that have managed to underpay them, and there are allegations that these workers have earnt as little as $12 to $13 per hour when the industry standard is in the range of $20 to $23 per hour.
In addition many unsafe work practices have been brought to the public’s attention through 24 visits from WorkSafe inspectors, and the company has been found to be in breach of a range of regulations, with offences such as using unlicensed forklift and truck drivers, failing to provide first aid and emergency shower facilities for hazardous waste chemicals and a lack of training for workers handling dangerous chemicals. Unfortunately there have been a range of serious work injuries in this workplace.
I strongly urge the minister to visit the area, which is in his own electorate, and meet with those who are very concerned about this situation and how workers are being treated.