Charges laid as police find migrant misery

Gabrielle Knowles, Steve Butler and Claire TyrrellThe West Australian
Possible illegal immigrants - Carabooda workers
Camera IconPossible illegal immigrants - Carabooda workers Credit: The West Australian

WA consumers are facing potential "cyclone-like" price hikes for tomatoes and other popular vegetables after a weekend police raid on a prominent Perth market garden operator over allegations involving illegal overseas workers and money-laundering.

Authorities have already charged 10 people, whom they accuse of being the masterminds and facilitators of a criminal enterprise that allegedly laundered tens of millions of dollars, with charges including 12 counts of money-laundering and four counts of harbouring.

More charges are expected as investigators continue to unravel the complex web of alleged criminal activities the syndicate was involved in.

Other business operators are expected to come under scrutiny as authorities investigate whether anyone else hired illegal workers for their operations.

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A sting that began as a WA Police organised crime investigation into suspected drug dealing a year ago led to the biggest joint agency investigation in the State when investigators discovered their targets were also allegedly using and exploiting illegal foreign labour.

About 180 suspected illegal foreigners, including children, were taken into custody on Saturday after dozens of raids involving about 500 law enforcement officers and nine government agencies.

The men, women and children, found on a compound in Carabooda owned by TLF Exports, were allegedly living in squalid conditions, with several cramped into each room.

City of Wanneroo health inspectors raided the same property in 2009 after concerns about a sewerage system running from a shed that housed overseas workers.

Council officers allegedly found unlawfully constructed accommodation that was without air-conditioning, beds or proper sewerage and was "unfit for human habitation".

Police Minister Liza Harvey told the ABC yesterday she believed there would be more shocking revelations as the investigation unfolded.

She thought West Australians would be horrified to learn they have been buying fruit and vegetables produced by people who were exploited.

"They have been shanghaied into working at low rates and in conditions that other Australian workers would never tolerate," she said. "Taking advantage of people who are desperate for employment and desperate for a new life, they are the lowest of the low."

The family empire at the centre of the police investigation is TLF Exports, which supplies up to a third of the State's tomatoes. It also has construction and seafood supply interests.

One of the owners of TLF Exports said last night that none of the company directors had been charged with but they would fight all the allegations.

Woolworths said it had stopped doing business with TLF, which predominantly supplied it tomatoes, in the wake of the inquiry. "We have halted our relationship with them and cancelled future orders," a spokeswoman said yesterday.

WA Independent Growers Association president John Cummings said if TLF Exports' market growing operations were shut down, tomato prices could soar in a similar fashion to bananas did in 2011 after the damage caused to stocks by cyclone Yasi.

But the effect on Perth's vegetable and fruit supply is likely to be more widespread as authorities investigate whether other market gardeners or Perth businesses also hired illegal workers for their operations. It is understood dozens of other operators could be caught up in the investigation.

A leading WA wholesaler told _The West Australian _that the quantity of market stocks yesterday morning on lines including tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce, celery, cabbage, silver beet, spring onions and Asian vegetables, had been halved because of the lack of delivery drivers and skilled workers to pick and cut the produce.

Another fruit and vegetable seller said while the business did not deal directly with TLF, the worker shortage meant it could not secure its regular supply of iced broccoli. The seller, who said TLF had governed tomato prices in the past three years, speculated that short-term prices could go "through the roof" as it was the tail-end of the local season and the replacement supply from Carnarvon was not yet ready.

Vegetables WA executive officer John Shannon said the industry was "stunned" by the allegations about TLF Exports.

He said Vegetables WA had gone to great lengths to educate growers about their legal responsibilities to staff.

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