Published: 02/05/2022
Category: On The Job
Published: 02/05/2022
Category: On The Job

A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. It’s a simple principle that workers and unions have been fighting for generation after generation.

On Australian farms, that fight has been had once again and it is workers who have won a significant victory.

For the first time, workers on Australia farm are guaranteed a minimum rate of pay for all workers who were until now paid “piece rates.”

These changes to the Horticulture Award came into effect last week, guaranteeing every worker a minimum casual rate of $25.41 per hour.

The changes to the award are the result of a submission to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) by the Australian Workers Union (AWU).

In its findings, the full bench of the FWC “expressed the view that the existing pieceworker provisions in the Horticulture Award are not fit for purpose”.

“They do not provide a fair and relevant minimum safety net as required by the Act,” it said.

Following the changes to the Horticulture Act, workers picking or packing produce on Australian farms are no longer being paid by how much they harvest. A minimum wage for workers in the sector is now guaranteed.

Australian Workers Union National Secretary Dan Walton told On the Job that piece rates had become standard practice on many Australian farms. Consequently, unscrupulous employers found loopholes in the award and exploited workers.

“We saw cases of workers earning $3 an hour, or $100 for working 60 hours per week,” he said.

“After a long period of time, the evidence we put forward showed widespread and systematic abuse with workers not earning anywhere near the minimum wage across the board.”

The Australian Workers Union and the United Workers Union have highlighted the staple practice of insecure work across the industry.

Walton explained this unreliable work has left employees vulnerable to exploitation as labour hire firms have moved in and dominated workforce placement.

There is a large number of labor hire companies operating in this space who I would describe as human traffickers.

They have control of labor cohorts which they move around from state to state, farm to farm, from produce to produce, and as a consequence, provide some reassurances to some farmers that everything is being done right and above board.

Far too often, it’s just not the case.

Daniel Walton
Australian Workers Union National Secretary

Daniel Walton  -  Australian Workers Union National Secretary

“There are good farmers out there who have tried to do the right thing but have been cannibalised by the dodgy operators,” Walton said.

Walton has heard for years about the appalling treatment of workers at the hands of labour hire companies. Even as the deadline approached for the new award to kick in, the exploitation continued.

“I was up north west of Cairns for the last couple of days, in and around the avocado harvest season and on banana farms. What we saw once again was workers being set up in accommodation having transport companies waiting to pick them up from their door, take them straight to the farm and return them.”

“We’ve seen accomodation providers taking illegal deductions and transport companies charging exorbitant rates for transport to and from farms. Labour hire companies are controlling their (workers) movements at any point in time,” Walton said.

“The precarious nature of the work, particularly for overseas workers, means those workers are usually afraid to speak up and raise concerns about their circumstance, given the visa arrangements that are in place”.

‘It leads to a very bad outcome for so many of them”.

The Morrison Government was aware of the exploitation of farm workers but chose not to act.

“Agriculture Minister David Littleproud was fond of saying it was just a case of a few bad apples,” Walton said.

“The lived experience of so many of our members and so many workers in the industry is that, unfortunately, is that [the industry] is rotten right through to the core and fixing piece rates will go a long way to providing some security for workers in the industry.”

Farmworkers and United Workers Union members have welcomed the change.

“I reckon all of us are going to be happy to have the same wages for the week,” one UWU member said.

Minimum pay on Australian farms another union win

Minimum pay on Australian farms another union win