The AWU is going to the Fair Work Commission this week to ensure fruit and vegetable pickers are guaranteed at least minimum wage, instead of being ripped off by “piece rates” that have seen some workers paid as little as $3 an hour.
The AWU wants the Horticulture Award amended to guarantee every worker on every farm is entitled to take home the minimum casual rate of pay, currently $25.41 per hour.
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. Employers are able to set these rates on a daily basis with no oversight.
Manipulation of this system has led to widespread incidences of workers being ripped off, as recently in a range of inquiries and reports, including the McKell Institute’s landmark Blue Harvest report.
National Secretary Daniel Walton says he is confident the AWU’s case is strong and just.
He says piece rates would still be permitted under the AWU’s proposed amendment, but every worker would be guaranteed the award rate as a floor.
“Australia was built on the principle of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, but report after report has shown us that exploitation, abuse, and even slavery is widespread on Australia’s farms” Mr Walton says.
“Piece rates make it easy for vulnerable workers to be cheated, ripped off, and exploited.
“The farm lobby loves piece rates because their complexity is a great place for wage thieves to hide. Currently you don’t even have 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 will become: ‘Are you making at least $25.41 an hour? No? OK then you’re being cheated.’ Obviously that’s much easier than weighing up all the intricacies and loopholes of piece rates.”
Mr Walton says the Federal Government and the farm lobby have both opposed the amendment the AWU has championed.
“The amendment will undermine the Government’s new strategy of bringing in easily exploited workers from South East Asia,” he says.
“The whole point of their new ASEAN visa is to open up new streams of workers who can be easily deceived and intimidated at work.
“And making it easy for these workers to understand if they’re being short changed is the last thing the farming lobby wants.
“The farm lobby loves to claim that workers on piece-work 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.”
Mr Walton says the amendment 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.”
If you want to support agricultural workers getting fair pay sign the petition here: https://go.awu.net.au/Farmers