Leleige Fetui has been travelling to Australia for the past five years to work the apple and pear harvest in Shepparton. The Samoan national says the conditions are good and there’s money to be made.
- Fruit picker Leleige says the controversial piece rate works for him
- The Australian Workers Union has lodged a claim with the Fair Work Commission saying all pickers should earn the award minimum hourly rate
- Victorian Farmers Federation horticulture president Nathan Free says performance-based pay is the only way to make harvest financially viable
“You prepare yourself to work in that environment, work how you want to work and get good money for it, so I recommend that for anyone who picks,” Mr Fetui said.
Like most seasonal workers, he works on a piece rate, which means he is paid for how much he picks.
“Piece rate is a lot better than getting paid the hourly rate, especially doing picking,” he said.
But the piece rate is a contentious issue, with worker exploitation casting a dark cloud on the industry.
The piece rate is designed to guarantee pay of 15 per cent more than the minimum wage.
But the Australian Workers Union says that rarely happens and has lodged a claim with the Fair Work Commission to change the award.
“This is an industry in which wage theft is endemic, and they really do need to get their act together and start paying people properly,” Ben Davis, Australian Workers Union Victorian branch secretary, said.
“We are making an application to vary the award and that application is to make sure that no matter what the piece rate is that is being paid, that all employees at least earn the award minimum hourly rate plus the 15 per cent, and if they are a casual, 25 per cent.”
Piece rate only option
Nathan Free is the Victorian Farmers Federation horticulture president and says performance-based pay is the only way to make harvest financially viable.
“We can’t afford to have a worker sitting here that can’t get the row up in time with the rest of the workers,” he said.
“We need to be able to work with them and make sure they are earning their wage.
Rein Silverstein is an apple and pear farmer in Shepparton and says if a picker is earning less than the minimum wage, farm work isn’t for them.
“The problem that has been in the press about people who only work one or two bins of fruit, those people don’t last long in an orchard,” she said.
“If you only pick one or two bins of fruit a day, that’s not the job for you.
“You’re not earning enough money, you’re not pleasing the grower, so there’s no way that we would employ people who pick less than two or three bins of fruit a day.”
But Leleige Fetui loves the piece rate and says the lifestyle of farm work will keep him coming back.
“When the harvest is heavy, you are looking at making over $1,000 a week,” he said.