Minimum pay requirements for farm workers take effect today and you might see that price in your basket

Home Science Minimum pay requirements for farm workers take effect today and you might see that price in your basket
Minimum pay requirements for farm workers take effect today and you might see that price in your basket

Shoppers are being warned that cost-of-living pressures may get worse from today as pay changes on farms across the country have the potential to make fruit and vegetables more expensive.

It is the first day of a new wage structure for workers in the horticulture industry, marking one of the most significant changes ever for Australian agriculture.

Under the new rules, workers picking or packing produce by piece rate — that is, getting paid by how much they harvest — now have a guaranteed minimum rate of pay.

It follows the ruling by the Fair Work Commission late last year, which many farm groups rallied against, saying it would dis-incentivise productive workers.

Portrait of a man with short grey hair and glasses in front of a blurry outdoor background
Fruit Growers Tasmania’s Peter Cornish says less productive workers will likely lose their jobs.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

Chief executive of Fruit Growers Tasmania, Peter Cornish, said while a minimum pay guarantee was “a good thing” and much work had been done in the lead up to the new system to ensure farms complied, it was “likely” to increase produce prices at the supermarket.

“There will be higher cost pressures. Whether that transfers into [sale] prices or not is another matter, but there will be a pressure on that for sure,” he said.

“If they have to top up people that are below the minimum, that means higher costs and it may well transfer into higher fruit prices as well.”

Growers will have to ensure all harvest workers under the Horticulture Award are paid at least $25.41 an hour, though they can earn more than that for increased productivity.

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Changes to how fruit and vegetable pickers are paid.(Kath Sullivan)

Good day for farm workers, union says

The case was brought to the Commission by the Australian Workers Union (AWU) after years of successive headlines about farm workers being severely underpaid.

Image of a man
AWU’s Daniel Walton says it’s high time horticulture workers were guaranteed a minimum wage.(ABC Rural: Kath Sullivan)

The Commission’s full bench “expressed the view that the existing pieceworker provisions in the Horticulture Award are not fit for purpose”.

AWU national secretary Daniel Walton said some growers were using piece rates to pay workers as little as $3 an hour.

“Underpayment was widespread. That’s the evidence we put forward, and that’s what the independent umpire found sufficient to rule to put in this pay floor,” he said.

Mr Walton said farmers could still incentivise workers to be more productive in a way that benefited everyone.

“What this also does is stop those unscrupulous, dodgy employers from the countless examples right across the country from paying workers well below the award,” he said.

Backpacker pickers ‘thing of the past’

Producers have had mixed responses to the change, but most agree it will fundamentally overhaul the way fruit and vegetables are produced and harvested, for better or worse.

Workers at Berry farm
Burlington Berries’ Laurie Adams says the industry will now be a lot more structured.(ABC News: Carla Howarth)

Laurie Adams is the general manager of Burlington Berries, a producer south of Launceston.

He watched similar measures be implemented in the United Kingdom in 2012 and expects similar consequences.

“It’ll be a more structured workplace, more suitable for the professional workers and unfortunately less viable for backpackers, students, semi-retired people who liked to come in a few days a week and were happy to earn some cash in hand,” he said.

Mr Cornish agreed, saying 10-20 per cent of the Tasmanian workforce would not be able to stay employed “because they won’t be able to meet that minimum daily amount, so they’ll be subsidised by the employers and the employers won’t be able to afford that”.

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