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AWU moves to close loophole allowing farms to get away with paying $3/hour

December 16, 2020

The Australian Workers’ Union has today moved to close the industrial loophole that allows farms to pay vulnerable workers a fraction of the award rate.

The union will today apply to the Fair Work Commission to amend the Horticulture Award to guarantee that every worker on every farm is entitled to take home the minimum casual rate of pay – $24.80 per hour.

Currently, farms can dodge this minimum rate through ‘piecework’ arrangements, under which workers are paid depending on the quantity of fruit picked or vegetables harvested. Manipulation of this system has led to widespread incidences of workers getting paid as little as $3 per hour, as revealed most recently in the McKell Institute’s landmark Blue Harvest report.

Workers who are paid by piece rates are also subjected to tougher and more dangerous working conditions. They are twice as likely to be made to work in extreme heat and three times more likely to carry excessive loads.

Under the AWU’s proposed amendment, piecework arrangements would still be permitted, but every worker would be guaranteed the award rate as a floor.

With four out of ten workers paid by piece rates across the industry, this would represent a huge victory for tens of thousands of workers.

“After a slew of investigations, inquiries and media exposes over a decade, we know for a fact that worker exploitation, worker abuse, and even modern slavery is rife on Australian farms,” said AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton.

“There is no reason we have to accept this shameful reality. Australia was founded on the principle that if you do a fair day’s work you should be guaranteed a fair day’s pay. There is no reason we should consider farms to be an exception to this rule in 2020.

“As things stand fruit and veg employers don’t even record how many hours people are working. That’s madness. The hours should be logged and people should be paid accordingly.

“The farm employers’ lobby is fond of claiming that fruitpickers on piecework arrangements make more than the minimum wage. If that’s true then they should have zero problem with supporting our amendment.

“The ethical farmers who employ people on decent rates will face no disadvantage from our amendment. It is only the wage thieves, the scammers, and the shonks who have anything to fear.

“Shearers, wool testers, cane cutters, and others on piecework rates already have this protection. We need to extend it to fruit and veg pickers.”

The AWU has spent the last year lifting the lid on the fruit and veg industry across the country, from uncovering slum like housing conditions in Tasmania, to widespread underpayments in the blueberry industry in Coffs Harbour. It has also recently called for a Royal Commission into the industry which has not yet been ruled out by the Morrison Govermnent.

“The reason farmers are finding it hard to attract workers to fruit picking currently is because people don’t want to be ripped off and exploited. If we are successful in amending the Horticulture Award every person working on an Australian farm will be guaranteed a basic award rate. This will help drive down youth unemployment in our regions which we know is at catastrophic highs currently.

“We expect broad support for this amendment because it also makes economic sense to rural communities. Workers who earn more, spend more in local shops and supermarkets. They pay income tax and GST. They rent houses and build lives in regional areas.”

The call-for-reform is supported by bushfire survivor Natalie Trigwell, who has thrown her support behind the claim after she was paid just $15 a day for backbreaking work on a blueberry plantation.

“I was working six to eight hours a day in the heat and getting a ridiculously low wage that you couldn’t live on,” she said.

“There are decent farmers out there who are doing the right thing but we need to root out the bad guys and make sure every fruit and veg picker is paid a fair wage. Right now there’s no way I’d encourage anyone to take up this work, but if we ended the current piece rates award arrangements that would be a game changer.”

The FWC is expected to hear the AWU application next year. The AWU has high hopes it will rule in favour of workers given how blatant and widespread under-payments are in the industry.

Get on board with our fair piece rates for farm workers campaign – sign our petition to change the laws to make sure that farm workers receive a guaranteed minimum hourly rate regardless of what you pick.

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