The Australian Worker’s Union (AWU) will appear before the Fair Work Commission today to push for a guaranteed minimum wage for fruit and vegetable pickers.
At present, the minimum rate of pay for casual farm work is $25.41 per hour (US$19.02). However, the AWU says farms can “dodge” the minimum rate through piece-rate arrangements, where workers are paid depending on the quantity of fruit or vegetables harvested.
“Piece-rates make it easy for vulnerable workers to be cheated, ripped off, and exploited,” AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton said. “The farm lobby loves piece rates because their complexity is a great place for wage thieves to hide. Currently, you don’t even have to record how many hours someone is working.”
Some workers are paid as little as $3 an hour under piece-rate arrangements, according to the AWU, so they argue that making an hourly wage floor would make it easier for workers to know if they are being ripped off.
“The equation will become: ‘Are you making at least $25.41 an hour? No? OK then you’re being cheated.’ Obviously, that’s much easier than weighing up all the intricacies and loopholes of piece-rates,” Walton said.
However, the federal government and industry groups oppose the amendment.
The Australian Fresh Produce Alliance (AFPA), the representative body for fresh produce growers and suppliers, said it was vital that piece-rates were implemented effectively and fairly to ensure appropriate remuneration for workers.
“The use of piece-rate in the horticulture sector is essential due to the variable nature of fresh produce production; specifically, the highly seasonal nature of produce, ripeness, quality, and weather variables,” an AFPA spokesman told The Epoch Times.
In its submission to the Fair Work Commission (pdf), AFPA states that an average competent pieceworker earns 15 percent more per hour than the minimum hourly rate.
“The Award (piece-rate) thus creates a performance-based safety net that contains an element of risk and reward,” the submission said. “In other words, it strikes a risk-reward bargain for pieceworkers.”
The AWU argues that the farm lobbies should have no reason to reject their proposal since they note pieceworkers make more than the minimum wage.
“The farm lobby loves to claim that workers on piece work arrangements make more than the minimum wage,” Walton said. “If that’s the case, what we’re proposing should have no impact on them.”
However, the AFPA said piece-rates are justified in the horticulture industry due to workers varying experience levels, no experience required for the labour, and the fact that the removal of rates would also remove incentives for efficient work.
“Much of the workforce is drawn from backpackers with no prior experience and often poor motivation,” AFPA said. “Picking is not rocket science, but it does require some experience to achieve a basic level of competence.”
“The output of these not-yet-competent employees is very low compared to the cohort of competent workers.”
Instead, AFPA argued that the piece work rate should be reviewed and updated to make it easier to monitor compliance and prevent abuse by unethical employers.