Fruit picker minimum wage fight taken to Fair Work Commission

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The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) has taken its fight for fruit pickers to be guaranteed minimum wage to the Fair Work Commission.

Currently, fruit pickers are being paid “piecework rates”, with pay based on the volume of a crop picked.

The union supports these arrangements continuing, but wants the award rate set to guarantee the minimum wage of $25.41.

“Unfortunately, for a lot of farm workers in the industry, they’ve discovered piece rates don’t guarantee minimum rate of pay,” AWU national secretary Daniel Walton said.

“What we’re trying to do is close that loophole.”

But the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) is fighting back.

The organisation said it would protect farmers’ access to piecework rates, as they attract “dedicated and ambitious workers”.

NFF chief executive Tony Mahar also claimed these rates were better for workers.

“A worker on an hourly rate might earn less than $25 per hour over seven hours and pick five to six bins of apples,” he said.

“Over the same period, a worker on piece rates might earn $45 per bin, effectively doubling their earnings.”

Payments go before Fair Work Commission

This week, the Fair Work Commission will hear from growers and workers on both sides of the argument.

The AWU has lashed out at the NFF, claiming it’s running a protection racket for “dodgy operators” which are “cannibalising” good farmers.

“What we’ve seen, unfortunately, is exploitation is rife across every part of the country,” Mr Walton said.

But Mr Mahar argued a minimum hourly wage floor price on piecework rates risked scaring off workers, just as farmers were suffering a chronic labour shortage due to pandemic border closures.

Clash over minimum wage

Mr Walton said he had met blueberry pickers in Coffs Harbour who were being paid as little as $3 an hour.

But Mr Mahar claimed this was merely a “PR stunt”.

“If this is accurate, it is clearly an instance of underpayment and completely unrelated to the operation of piecework rates,” he said.

Instead, the NFF argued the real issue lay with labour hire companies, and called for national regulation of the industry.

The AWU agreed regulation was crucial, but said piecework rates were a separate issue.

“The NFF are waving a shiny, dangly thing to the side and saying, ‘Don’t worry about exploitation, everyone look over there’,” Mr Walton said.

It is expected the Fair Work Commission will deliver its decision in the coming months.

(Original ABC Article)