Fair Work Commission Concludes AWU Farm Workers Case

The Fair Work Commission has concluded hearing evidence in the Horticulture Award variation case brought by the AWU.

The case is an attempt by the AWU to end widespread worker exploitation and wage theft in the fruit and vegetable picking industry through the abuse of piece-rate payments.

The FWC has now heard from an array of witnesses who have highlighted the need for a minimum-wage safety net to end the current piece-rates system, which is open to abuse and has often seen workers do backbreaking work only to be paid as low as a few dollars an hour.

In closing this week the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance once again tried to pick holes in academic research the AWU has produced concerning piece-worker earnings.

The AWU’s expert witness, Dr Elsa Underhill from Deakin University, had earlier given detailed evidence to the FWC of widespread systemic wage theft and worker exploitation in the industry.

Dr Underhill’s extensive academic research into piece-worker earnings clearly shows that on average piece-workers earn well below the minimum award rates.

The AFPA’s expert witness, Greg Houston, claimed Dr Underhill’s research was focused on working holiday makers and couldn’t be relied on for conclusions about earnings across all employees, a position that merely echoed the AFPA’s previous claims.

But evidence produced by the National Farmers Federation and several employers suggests they use the same piece rates for all types of employees, not just overseas workers.

And once again the questioning reinforced the AWU’s case, as overseas workers make up at least around 60% of the horticulture workforce and, due to their often poor language skills and added pressure to work on regardless or jeopardise their temporary visas, they are often most at risk of piece-rate abuse.

Last week evidence from farmers presented to the commission continued to confirm it is common for workers to earn well below award rates, even at the better farms which have presumably been used by the NFF for their evidence.

The farmers’ evidence also showed they set the piece rates without consultation, not only in relation to their direct employees, but also for employees of labour hire companies who work on their farms.

On some occasions, farmers even retrospectively changed the piece rates at the end of the shift, based on what had been picked.

Also, last week, claims presented to the commission, and in the wider community, by the NFF, that the AWU wants a total end to piece rates, were debunked.

AWU cross-examination of NFF witnesses revealed that the farmers’ group had provided inaccurate and inflammatory information to farmers when asking them to complete an online survey about piece work.

For example, the material sent in conjunction with the survey indicated the AWU is attempting to “effectively abolish” piece rates from the Horticulture Award, when the union is actually only trying to introduce a safety net.

The FWC also heard detailed first-hand evidence from some of those directly affected by the flawed system, and from those trying to help them.

Three workers from a non-English speaking background – Mr Wang, Ms Hsu and Ms Ee – gave detailed evidence about being paid well below award rates for picking work and the poor conditions they were forced to work under.

Seven AWU organisers told the commission of piece workers receiving well below award rates, not receiving any income at all while being directed to perform farm maintenance work or picking damaged fruit, and the problems with trying to enforce the current award, given the vague and subjective payment conditions for piece workers.

And Dr Joanna Howe explained her extensive research into the industry, which has identified widespread compliance issues.

Final written submissions on the case are due on 26 July and the final hearing for oral submissions is scheduled on 30 July 2021.

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