The Australian Workers’ Union will this week commence its case to ensure fruit pickers are guaranteed at least minimum wage, instead of being ripped off by ‘piece rates’ that have seen some workers being paid as little as $3 an hour.
Staring tomorrow (13 July) the Fair Work Commission will hear the AWU’s case for amending the Horticulture Award to guarantee every worker on every farm is entitled to take home the minimum casual rate of pay, currently $25.41 per hour.
Currently, farms can dodge this minimum rate through piece rate arrangements, under which workers are paid depending on the quantity of fruit picked or vegetables harvested. Manipulation of this system has led to widespread incidences of workers getting paid a few dollars per hour, as revealed recently in a range of inquiries and reports, including recently in the McKell Institute’s landmark Blue Harvest report.
Under the AWU’s proposed amendment, piece rates arrangements would still be permitted, but every worker would be guaranteed the award rate as a floor. AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton said he was confident his union’s case was strong and just.
“Australia was built on the principle of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Piece rates violate this principle, making it easy for vulnerable workers to be cheated, ripped off, and exploited,” Mr Walton said.
“The farming lobby loves piece rates because their complexity is a great place for wage thieves to hide. Currently you don’t even to record how many hours someone is working. If we’re serious about cracking down on wage theft and abuse then we have to put a floor under piece rates.
“An hourly wage floor would make it much easier for a worker — even a disadvantaged, vulnerable worker – to know if she’s being ripped off. The equation becomes: ‘Are you making at least $25.41 an hour? No? OK then you’re being cheated.’ Obviously that’s much easier then weighing up all the intricacies and loopholes of piece rates.
“The government will fight this because it undermines their new strategy of bringing in easily exploited workers from South East Asia. The whole point of the new ASEAN visa is to open up new streams of workers who can be easily deceived and intimidated at work. Making it easy for these workers to understand if they’re being shortchanged is the last thing the farming lobby wants.
“Report after report has shown us that exploitation, abuse, and even slavery is widespread on Australia’s farms.
“The farm lobby loves to claim that workers on piecework arrangements make more than the minimum wage. If that’s the case what we’re proposing should have no impact on them. There is no reason we should accept that fruit and vegetable picking exists in an industrial no man’s land outside Australia’s norms and standards. Minimum wage applies to every other job, it should apply here too.
“We expect broad support for this amendment because it also makes economic sense to rural communities. Workers who earn more, spend more in local shops and supermarkets. They pay income tax and GST. They rent houses and build lives in regional areas.
“If we win this case it will help attract Aussies back into a sector where they should be working. The so-called labour shortage has been created by greedy employers destroying working conditions. Introducing the minimum wage would give locals confidence they can work in this sector without being ripped off.”