Article by: Hari Yellina (Orchard Tech)
Fruit pickers are now guaranteed minimum wage after a ruling by the Fair Work Commission. The Australian Workers’ Union applied to the commission in December last year to amend the Horticulture Award, to guarantee every worker on every farm is entitled to take home the minimum casual rate of pay, currently $25.41 per hour. According to reports, workers were earning as little as $3 per hour through the piece rate arrangements. Workers were paid according to the quality of the fruit they picked.
In a decision handed down on Tuesday, the commission found the current pieceworker provisions were not fit for purpose. The commission noted more than half of workers involved in seasonal harvesting are temporary migrant workers, who were also vulnerable to exploitation. Some pieceworkers earn significantly more than the ‘target rate’ for the average competent pieceworker, but the totality of the evidence presents a picture of significant underpayment of pieceworkers in the horticulture industry when compared to the minimum award hourly rate. Fruit pickers in Australia have been routinely and systemically exploited and underpaid. Too many farmers have been able to manipulate the piece rate system to establish pay and conditions far beneath Australian standards.
The changes our union proposed, and that the FWC has now accepted, will put a safety net under fruit pickers to ensure they get what every worker in Australia deserves: a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Now it will be easy for workers — even if they don’t have good English language skills or Australian connections – to understand if they’re being ripped off. From now on if any worker is making less than $25 an hour fruit picking in Australia then the farm owner is breaking the law and stealing from them. The increase in wage costs, most farms’ largest input, threatens to make the most productive workers unaffordable. The loss of these workers will put a handbrake on agriculture’s growth, at a time when the country can least afford it.