Minimum wage of fruit pickers approved

New rules: The creation of a set minimum hourly rate means employees can more easily tell when they are not being paid the extra 15 per cent they are owed for competent work. Photo by Megan Fisher

Fruit pickers will soon receive a minimum wage — $25.41 per hour — after a landmark decision by the Fair Work Commission on November 4.

Currently the Horticulture Award has no floor wage and workers are paid based on the amount of produce they pick.

Australian Workers Union (AWU) national secretary Daniel Walton said the win was one of the most significant industrial decisions of modern times.

“Fruit pickers in Australia have been routinely and systemically exploited and underpaid,” Mr Walton said.

“The changes our union proposed, and that the Fair Work Commission has now accepted, will put a safety net under fruit pickers to ensure they get what every worker in Australia deserves: a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”

Mr Walton said he suspected the Federal Government would soon join the National Farmers’ Federation in “fear-mongering about this decision”.

“After all, they have just hatched a plan to bring in even more easily exploited workers from South-East Asia.

“But now those workers can at least know if they’re being exploited.

“A clear floor has been put in place.”

The Horticulture Award covers everything from tractor drivers sowing grain to warehouse workers washing and grading fruit.

Crop industries not covered by the Horticulture Award include wine, sugar, cotton and nurseries.

The AWU first applied for change in December 2020 and evidence hearings occurred during July 2021.

Cobram District Fruit Growers Association president Tony Siciliano said it would still be business as usual come harvest.

“I don’t think the piece rate is going anywhere. It’s there to reward the workers doing a bit more and having a fair crack,” Mr Siciliano said.

“The wool shearers, the brick layers and the guys unloading trucks are all the same.

“The piece rate will always be there to encourage them a little bit more.”

Mr Siciliano said the one downside to the decision was that workers who were “not out having a crack” and “just there to count the hours” would be let go.

This will make securing work even harder for working holiday-makers trying to gain their 88 days of mandatory work and people looking to work at their own pace.

Those who opposed the changes largely agreed the unions were over-blowing wage exploitation.

The Australian Fresh Produce Alliance (AFPA) said the removal of the extreme risk-reward bargain of piecework could significantly disrupt the entire labour industry as employees lost the advantage of working at their own pace.

“Unskilled and unmotivated individuals with no experience, who would otherwise make unattractive candidates, can obtain employment (in piecework arrangements),” the AFPA said.

“Pickers who are not motivated to be productive and maximise their remuneration (eg backpackers who are only doing the job to satisfy visa requirements or ‘grey nomads’ who pick as a lifestyle choice) can pick at a pace that suits them, but still retain their employment.

“This allows employers not to be discerning in selecting and retaining their pickers and to continue engaging pickers found to have low productivity.”

The NFF said the changes would “render the industry less productive”.

Fruit Growers Tasmania said the AWU was “wrongly conflating the very serious issue of the underpayment of workers with merits of a legitimate payment system”.

The full decision can be read here: fwc.gov.au/documents/decisionssigned/html/2021fwcfb5554.htm#P373_22246

Opposed the application:

NFF

Australian Fresh Produce Alliance

Ai Group

Fruit Growers Tasmania

Payne’s Farm Contracting

Lucaston Park Orchards

Supported the application:

Queensland Government

Victorian Government

Western Australian Government

Australian Council of Social Services

88 Days and Counting

Uniting Church of Australia

AWU

UWU

THE EVIDENCE

Examples of evidence heard by the Commission include testimonials from working holiday makers, union officials and grower groups.

Working holiday maker, Darwin focus group:

“We worked in the same place and the cherries was very bad this year with the weather and so because of the rains they all cracked and so for the pickers, we had to check cherry by cherry … so you can’t make money and so you make like $5 per hour.”

Working holiday maker, Katherine focus group:

“You’re being forced to work piece rate but the crops wouldn’t be very good, so they’d say, ‘Don’t pick any of these because it’s diseased’ and you’d spend all day walking up and down and looking for fruit to pick and you’d be expected to do all of that in your own time. Yes, just $3 a bucket would take you half an hour, 40 minutes for the bucket because the crop’s just not there.”

Local worker, Stanthorpe:

“You had to do a whole row for $16 and I got maybe a quarter of the way down the row and it took me like over an hour, so I’m working on $4 an hour. I can sit at home — I don’t want to. I can sit at home on Centrelink and get $500, $600 a fortnight and someone wants to pay me $4?! I’m Australian, I don’t need to — I’m no-one’s slave.”

Community stakeholder interview, Griffith:

“Woolies and Coles, their buyers, their main buyers are standing up on a pedestal going ‘Everyone has to be doing the right thing here, everyone has to be moral about what they do’ and all the rest of it, they don’t give a s**t frankly. They really don’t care, so long as they’re getting their product at the lowest price. They’re making all those noises, but they really don’t care. I mean they were still buying (name omitted), they were still buying his tomatoes after he was raided and he flooded the market, so all the small growers who were doing the right thing couldn’t even get their tomatoes to market. It’s just such an ugly scene.”