Pickers in pay storm – Fruit growers anger at new rates

A NEW hourly wage deal struck by the Fair Work Commission will make it more difficult for people to work part-time fruit picking, say Tasmanian fruit industry peak bodies.

Primary Employers Tasmania has joined Fruit Growers Tasmania in expressing disappointment in the decision to introduce a minimum hourly rate.

The Australian Workers’ Union’s historic push to amend the Horticulture Award now guarantees every worker on every farm is entitled to the minimum casual rate of pay, currently $25.41 per hour.

“We are disappointed in the decision,” PET executive officer Andrew Cameron said.
“It will cause problems in Tasmania. Already there is a shortage of workers, under-productive workers who were satisfied to work part-time for piece rate will not be engaged because they will be paid a set hourly rate.
“Groups like grey nomads, who like to do some picking for a few days, will be left out because farmers won’t be able to afford them.
“Now with floor hourly rate unproductive workers won’t be engaged.”

For an average competent picker the piece rate provided a good income.

FGT chief executive Peter Cornish said the decision to put in place the minimum hourly rate with affect to productivity will make it harder for growers.

Mr Cornish does not believe there is evidence of workers on piece rates not earning what they should in Tasmania and did not agree with the findings.

“This decision will add a big cost to growers. It’s an ill-informed decision,” he said. “The decision is lazy, we missed a good opportunity to tweak the system and make it a good system for all concerned. Instead this adds more oversight, more administration.
“It’s impractical and illogical.”

Tasmania’s peak harvesting period occurs from December to March each year and usually requires about 9000 seasonal workers.

While employing more Tasmanian residents for the upcoming season is a priority for the Tasmanian Government, having experienced seasonal workers from interstate is critical to support Tasmanian agricultural businesses during the harvest season.

The Rapid Response Skills Initiative provides up to $3000 towards the cost of training for eligible people who have lost casual, full-time or part-time work in the last 12 months.

Picking for cherries, apricots will start in earnest in January.

Picking for raspberries starts next month and runs through January.

The National Farmers Federation, AiG, and other employer groups opposed the AWU’s case, defending the system that had seen farms dodge the minimum rate through piece rate arrangements.

With piece rates, workers are paid depending on the quantity of fruit picked or vegetables harvested.

However, the FWC ruled in favour of the AWU finding “the existing piece-worker provisions in the Horticulture Award are not fit for purpose; they do not provide a fair and relevant minimum safety net.”

AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton said it was one of the most significant industrial decisions of modern times.

“I believe this decision ranks among the great victories of our union’s 135-year history,” Mr Walton said.

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