The federal opposition says farm workers need to be guaranteed a minimum wage if they are paid according to how much produce they pick.
- Workers paid according to how much fruit they pick are being exploited, say unions
- The opposition says workers must be guaranteed a minimum wage
- The National Farmers’ Federation says piece rates drive worker productivity
Labor has thrown its support behind a union campaign to amend the horticulture workers award in a move farmers claim could drive them out of business.
Speaking in Sydney today, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said fruit pickers must be assured of earning the minimum wage of $19.84 per hour.
“What we’re saying is there should be a minimum rate,” he said.
Under the award, the piece rate allows workers to be paid according to the amount of fruit they harvest, and must offer the average worker up to 15 per cent more per hour than the minimum wage.
Mr Albanese said it had led to workers being underpaid and exploited.
Unions call for minimum pay guarantee
The Australian Workers’ Union has lodged a submission to the Fair Work Commission seeking to amend the award to ensure a minimum payment for those paid piece rates.
Farmers claim to rely on the piece rate system to boost productivity among workers, but unions say it has led to exploitation of vulnerable workers.
A new study by Unions NSW, released today, claims farm workers are earning as little as $1.25 an hour, despite a widespread labour shortage exacerbated by COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Based on interviews with 100 workers and an audit of 1,000 job advertisements offering farm work, the report said “96 per cent of piece rates advertised would not allow workers to earn the national minimum wage, and in several instances workers would earn less than $1 an hour”.
“No worker receives above the minimum wage if they are on piece rates; in fact, piece rates provide wages as low as $2 to $5 an hour for workers,” Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey said.
The study, entitled Wage Theft: Shadow Market, reported hourly rates fell to as low as $1.25 for blueberries, $4.10 for peaches, $4.89 for strawberries and $4.90 for grapes.
One backpacker’s story
For Taiwanese backpacker Johnson, working on a Queensland strawberry farm last for a piece rate was “a disaster”.
“It should be $100 at least, I think, but they didn’t pay me for hourly job, it was how many kilos I pick and then they pay me like 60 cents per kilo, maybe lower.
“I’ve never worked on a farm before so I don’t know if this price is normal so I just do it.”
Johnson, who declined to give his surname out of concern for his job prospects, has left Queensland and now works in Tasmania, where he says he is earning much better wages with a different contractor.
He says there are times when earning the piece rate has worked in his favour.
“It depends, on the condition of the fruit … if there’s a lot of fruit I don’t want to work an hourly job, but if the season just get started or is about to end, then I prefer to work in an hourly job.”
‘Losing piece rates will close farms’
The National Farmers’ Federation [NFF] said any cases of exploitation or underpayment should be reported to the Fair Work Ombudsman.
Ben Rogers, the NFF’s general manager of workplace relations and legal affairs, said farmers were reliant on piece rates to drive productivity and without them some farmers would be forced to close.
“You’ll just be driving a whole bunch of growers and small growers out of business and out of the economy,” he said.
“Those rogue operators are going to exploit people and they’ll find other ways to do that, but attacking piece rates and denying the sector a key productivity tool is just not the way to go about solving that issue.”
The matter is expected to come before the Fair Work Commission in July.