Hard at work on a blueberry farm.
Hard at work on a blueberry farm.

Loophole lets farms dodge minimum wage says union

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

The union has applied 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.

The move comes with the release of a landmark report on Coffs Harbour's blueberry industry.

Titled Blue Harvest, it outlined widespread underpayment and labour exploitation.

Researchers spent 12 weeks in the region, gathering data and stories from blueberry workers employed during the 2020 picking season. They found that some were paid as little as $7 a bucket to pick low-quality fruit - the equivalent of $3 an hour.

The report, released on December 4, has prompted unions to call for a Royal Commission into the exploitation, wage theft, and abuse they say is rife in the industry.

FULL STORY: Coffs investigation shows exploitation 'rife'

The AWU says that currently, farms can dodge the minimum rate outlined in the Horticulture Award 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.

Hard at work on a blueberry farm. Pic by Nic Walker.
Hard at work on a blueberry farm. Pic by Nic Walker.

$15 a day for backbreaking work on blueberry plantation

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."

A recent investigation found exploitation, worker abuse and even modern day slavery was rife in the industry.
A recent investigation found exploitation, worker abuse and even modern day slavery was rife in the industry.

"No reason we have to accept this shameful reality"

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

"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."

The union says some fruit and vegetable employers don't even record how many hours people are working.

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

"Shearers, station hands, cane cutters, and others on piecework rates already have this protection. We need to extend it to fruit and veg pickers."


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