Farmworker price floor to start end of April after Fair Work Commission ruling

For the first time, workers on Australian farms will be guaranteed a minimum rate of pay when changes to the Horticulture Award come into force on April 28.

The Fair Work Commission set the deadline for major price changes on Tuesday, after determining last November that a minimum floor price should be set for pieceworkers.

A piece rate is when a worker is paid according to the amount of produce they harvest – so the more fruits or vegetables harvested, the more a worker is paid.

Farmers’ groups argued before the commission that introducing a price floor would discourage productivity and see the most productive workers leave the industry.

But in its final decision, the commission called those claims “speculative and unsupported by evidence.”

The commission was scathing in responding to an agricultural company, which had challenged the payment of the terms of the award, saying that its submission demonstrated “a lack of knowledge of the existing award obligations”.

For the first time, agricultural workers will know their minimum hourly rate.(Supplied: LuvaBerry)

The final ruling means workers under the horticulture price must be paid at least $25.41 an hour.

Workers can still be paid on a piece rate basis, which should allow the average worker to earn the equivalent of at least 15 per cent more than the casual rate.

Employers will also be required to record the hours worked by the pieceworker and the rate applied to the hours worked.

Winning for workers, says union

The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), which first filed the submission with the Fair Work Commission in December 2020, and had the backing of the federal opposition, says this is a great outcome for workers .

“[The decision] means piece rates can still exist, you can still earn more than the price, you can still be incentivized,” said AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton.

“But what it also guarantees is that if you work 30, 40 or 50 hours a week, you will at least get your minimum wage rights for those hours worked.

“It didn’t happen today, but from April 28, that’s what will happen in the future.”

a group of men in suits.
Daniel Walton flanked union leaders outside Parliament in Canberra.(Rural ABC: Kath Sullivan)

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has previously suggested that changes to the piece rate could increase prices at the supermarket, but Mr Walton did not believe the changes would have an impact on the cost of fresh fruit and vegetables.

The union initially called for the changes to be introduced on January 1, but the National Farmers Federation and the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance have argued they should not come into effect until July 1.

Industry groups declined to comment on the timeline set by the Fair Work Commission.

Mixed reaction in growing regions

In New South Wales’ Riverina, orange grower Bart Brighenti said introducing a floor in the piece rate would mean farmers would have to spend more time supervising workers.

“It’s not the fact that it’s a minimum wage, it’s actually how we keep track of our workers in the paddock, that’s the biggest impact,” said Mr Brighenti.

The man is holding citrus fruits.
Bart Brighenti says farmers will have to restructure their business to embrace the changes.(Rural ABC: Sarina Locke)

Mr. Brighenti and his family employ around 35 fruit pickers at the height of the harvest.

“The nature of the business is that they are on the ground…it’s only partial supervision, we can’t supervise everyone all the time, we’re talking about multiple farms.

“Once they’re on the hourly rate, we have to supervise them to make sure they’re productive enough.”

Mr Brighenti said the changes would also leave him “no choice but to employ” gray nomads who he said had previously been able to work at “their own pace”.

In Griffith, not far from Mr Brighenti’s farms, Cristobal Hidalgo runs a hostel for backpackers.

Mr Hidalgo said the hostel did not send backpackers or seasonal workers to do piecework because they were not paid enough.

“I’ve met people who work picking oranges and they earn $30 a day or even less, that’s why as a hostel we decided not to provide any kind of piecework at all. whoever it is, because personally I don’t think that’s fair.

“I’m not saying they have to pay $1,000 or more a week, I’m just trying to say that’s not fair.”

Comments are closed.