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A business that knowingly and repeatedly breached labour hire licensing laws has been fined more than $600,000, which is believed to be the highest in Australian labour hire law history.

Victorian Supreme Court Associate Justice Mary-Jane Ierodiaconou said the pecuniary penalty to be paid by A L Star Express Pty Ltd needed to be “sufficiently high not to be the ‘price of doing business'”.

Victoria’s labour hire watchdog launched its prosecution of the company in May, claiming it supplied at least 16 labour hire workers to four farm operators across Victoria.

In June 2021, the Labour Hire Authority rejected the company’s application for a licence to provide labour hire services to the horticultural industry and provided a written notice that outlined the “significant financial penalties” that could flow from providing labour hire services without a licence.

LHA evidence accepted by the Supreme Court showed that between September and December 2021, A L Star Express provided 16 workers to pick fruit and vegetables and carry out other horticulture tasks on farms in several locations including Rosebud, Koo Wee Rup and Torquay.

Associate Justice Ierodiaconou said that it appeared that the company knew it needed to have a licence to provide labour hire services..

“After being refused a licence, it provided labour hire services.

“It knowingly contravened the Act by providing such services,” she said.

Associate Justice Ierodiaconou said the knowing and repeated nature of these contraventions involving at least 16 workers needed to be characterised as “serious”, particularly as they related directly to the objective of labour hire legislation to “protect workers from exploitation by providers of labour hire services and hosts, and to improve the transparency and integrity of the labour hire industry”.

She said while it was the first time that the company had breached the State’s 2018 Labour Hire Licensing Act, there remained a strong need for both specific and general deterrence.

Labour Hire Commissioner Steve Dargavel said the vulnerable nature of many of the labour hire workers picking fruit and vegetables – many on visa programs – means it is “critical that the companies employing them are appropriately vetted and licensed to operate”.

The watchdog has recently taken legal action against several labour hire companies in the Victorian horticultural sector including cases involving multiple alleged breaches of company director obligations and failure to inform the LHA of a director’s criminal convictions.