The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) is seeking a guaranteed minimum wage for fruit pickers before the Fair Work Commission this week.
The AWU’s case will be heard on Tuesday, where the union says it will argue the Horticulture Award should be amended so that every worker on every farm is entitled to the minimum casual rate of pay, currently $25.41 per hour.
According to the AWU, some workers are currently being paid as little as $3 per hour because farms can use ‘piece rate arrangements’ that mean workers are paid depending on the quantity of fruit picked or vegetables harvested.
AWU national secretary Daniel Walton said that the manipulation of the system has resulted in widespread incidences of workers getting paid very little. Under the union’s proposed amendment he said that piece rates arrangements would still be permitted but every worker would be guaranteed the award rate as a floor.
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“Australia was built on the principle of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Piece rates violate this principle, making it easy for vulnerable workers to be cheated, ripped off, and exploited,” Walton said.
“Currently you don’t even to record how many hours someone is working. If we’re serious about cracking down on wage theft and abuse then we have to put a floor under piece rates.”
Walton added that by ensuring an hourly wage floor, it would be easier to prevent disadvantaged and vulnerable workers from being ripped off.
“The equation becomes: ‘Are you making at least $25.41 an hour? No? OK then you’re being cheated’,” he said.
“Obviously that’s much easier then weighing up all the intricacies and loopholes of piece rates.”
Walton acknowledged that the government was likely to fight the union’s proposed strategy because it threatened its newly announced strategy of ‘bringing in easily exploited workers from South East Asia’.
“The whole point of the new ASEAN visa is to open up new streams of workers who can be easily deceived and intimidated at work.
“Making it easy for these workers to understand if they’re being short-changed is the last thing the farming lobby wants,” he said.
The union secretary said that should the AWU win this case, he expected more Australians would be attracted back to the sector because it was a measly minimum wage that deterred locals from doing this type of work.
“We expect broad support for this amendment because it also makes economic sense to rural communities,” Walton said.
“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.”
This article was first published by The Mandarin.