National Farmers Federation takes on AWU to protect piecework rates

In the Fair Work Commission starting tomorrow, the National Farmers’ Federation will fight to protect farmers’ access to piecework rates and workers’ right to be paid according to their efforts.

The NFF will respond to demands by the AWU to the FWC to put a hourly wage floor price on piecework rates, which will effectively abolish what is ultimately a method that can reward a fair days work with a better than fair day’s pay.

“At a time when farmers are suffering from chronic labour shortages, the AWU has mounted a misleading and membership-driven case, that if successful will not only hurt farmers but workers too,” NFF CEO Tony Mahar said.

Fruit and vegetable growers require workers for short intensive periods of picking and packing.
Piecework rate arrangements attract dedicated and ambitious workers and incentivise productivity.

Under the Horticulture Award, piecework rates must be set to allow a worker to earn at least 15% above the award wage.

“Rather than offering a set, hourly rate, piecework rates allow workers to earn at a rate that directly corresponds to how much they pick or pack in a given workday,” Mr Mahar said.

“For example, a worker on an hourly rate might earn less than $25 per hour over 7 hours and pick 5-6 bins of apples, over the same period, a worker on piece rates might earn $45 per bin, effectively doubling their earnings.

“The risk of putting a minimum hourly wage floor price on piecework rates is that growers will see productivity and the pool of suitable workers drop in the midst of an already chronic labour shortage brought about by COVID border closures,” Mr Mahar said.

“Employment is the number one expense for many growers, at as much as 66% of their operating costs, and any significant increase to that could see businesses fail.”

Mr Mahar said disappointingly the AWU’s tactics to date had been to deliberately and incorrectly, conflate the very serious issue of worker underpayment with piecework rates.

“For PR purposes, the AWU likes to roll out lines about farm workers being paid $3 an hour. If this is accurate, it is clearly an instance of underpayment and completely unrelated to the operation of piece work rates.

“Employers who deliberately rip off workers must be held to account. The NFF urges any farm worker who believes they have been deliberately underpaid to report their experience to the Fair Work Ombudsman.

“By contrast, piecework rates are a legal payment mechanism, that already have a built-in protection mechanism, that guarantees workers earn 15% more than the award wage.

Mr Mahar said the NFF was committed to ensuring growers’ continued access to piecework rates.

“This case has the hallmarks of many of the landmark disputes the NFF has fought on behalf of farmers in its 42 year history. Battles that have shaped the face of Australian agriculture and farm advocacy.”

The FWC will hear from growers and workers who use and benefit from piece work rates.

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