The Fair Work Commission’s decision that Australian farm labourers paid piece rates to pick fruit and vegetables must henceforth get a base salary of $25.41 per hour is long overdue and vital. Anyone working in Australia should, in theory, be paid a minimum wage. However, in the agricultural sector, piecework payments, in which workers are paid exclusively for what they produce with no guarantee of a minimum wage, have persisted as a prevalent practice.
“A large component of the seasonal harvesting workforce is engaged on piece rates, and more than half of the seasonal harvesting workforce is temporary migrant workers,” according to the commission’s ruling. The seasonal harvesting labour is subject to exploitation because of these qualities.” Piecework doesn’t have to be exploitative. It all relies on the rates – if they’re high enough to make a livelihood in a terrible season with limited fruit. They should be by law. They haven’t been in practise. The Fair Work Commission has recognised this and is working to rectify it. It’s all about the clock.
Minimum weekly and hourly rates are regulated by the Horticulture Award, which covers farm fruit and vegetable pickers. However, it also allows full-time, part-time, or casual employees to negotiate a piece-rate with their boss. The negotiated rate must “allow the average competent employee to earn at least 15% more per hour than the minimum hourly rate” stipulated in the award, and it must be entered into “without force or duress.” For many, this has not been the case.
Wage theft was shown to be frequent among migrant workers in the 2017 National Temporary Migrant Work Survey. In the study of 4,322 people, 46 percent said they made less than $15 an hour, and 30 percent said they made less than $12 an hour. Wage theft was common in a variety of industries, but agricultural employment was the worst compensated. 31% of migrants working as fruit and vegetable pickers made less than $10 per hour, while 15% made less than $5 per hour.
It was already the responsibility of employers to pay piece rates high enough to allow competent workers to make 15% more the minimum wage. Rather than thinking of this ruling as imposing an “extra cost” on farmers, it should be seen as putting in place a mechanism to ensure compliance with the law. A base rate takes the prospect of vulnerable workers getting paid $3 an hour off the table. That’s definitely not asking for a lot.
Article by: Hari Yellina (Orchard Tech)