Article by: Hari Yellina
Farmers say shops must pay reasonable rates for fresh fruit and vegetables and guarantee that they are grown by reputable producers as big changes to the way Australia’s fruit pickers are compensated are implemented. Farm labourers who are traditionally paid based on how much produce they pick or pack must be guaranteed a minimum hourly pay as of April 28, according to amendments to the Horticulture Award. That works up to $25.41 per hour for casuals. Workers can still be compensated on a piece-rate basis based on their output. The average skilled worker should be able to make 15% more than the minimum wage, or over $30 per hour. The modifications were revealed by the Fair Work Commission following the Australian Workers’ Union’s successful appeal (AWU).
The improvements, according to AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton, will provide a safety net for workers. “Now they’ll be more productive, which is a better result for the farmer, and it’s a nice result for our members.” When the Fair Work Commission concluded that the piece rate system was ineffective, Australia’s Agriculture Minister David Littleproud warned that any modifications would raise the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables. Some farmers, such as Emma Germano, already pay their employees by the hour. The head of the Victorian Farmers Federation, on the other hand, predicted that the modifications to the Horticulture Award will raise the cost of producing fresh fruit and vegetables, affecting the entire sector.
“Labor expenditures are the most expensive portion of the production cost, accounting for up to 60% of gross farm earnings,” Ms Germano explained. Some farmers are concerned that the revisions will exacerbate a nationwide labour shortage, which is believed to be in the thousands. “Previously, there was no impost on on-farm management to ensure that the people who were less productive were productive, because they were paid proportionately to their efficiency and production,” Ms Germano explained. Workers in crops that cannot be harvested mechanically, such as citrus, cherries, apples, and berries, are usually paid a piece wage.
More than half of the horticultural industry’s turnover is generated by members of the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance. Michael Rogers, the company’s CEO, believes that the way workers are compensated has to be better regulated. Mr Rogers stated, “We have a very firm attitude that anyone who does not pay people correctly or treat workers appropriately should leave the sector.” “It’s inexcusable, and it hurts growers who are doing the right thing.” Changes to the Horticulture Award, according to Mr Rogers, would force some businesses to restructure. “The verdict has far-reaching repercussions for employers that haven’t been paying well,” he said. “For those businesses who have been paying handsomely, the decision probably goes further than anyone thought — in the sense that compounding the 15% loading on the casual rate increases the average hourly rate to $30 per hour, which is a lot of money for picking fruit in anyone’s vernacular.