Fruit picking

Play fair and workers will come

Could the labour shortage in the horticulture sector stem from how workers are treated? Journalist Monica Crouch asks what’s going on – and what needs to change.

Katy came to Australia from Taiwan to pick oranges on a farm in South Australia. When she arrived, the horticulture company said they’d pay her $20 a bucket. What they didn’t tell her was that it took 860 kilograms of oranges to fill that bucket.

For the first three months it took Katy a long day to fill a bucket. That’s three months on $20 a day. After three months, she could fill three to four buckets a day. On a good day, if it wasn’t raining, Katy worked from dawn to dusk for $80.

Since international borders closed, Australia’s horticulture companies have spoken out about labour shortages. So why aren’t local people who are looking for work keen to try their hand at fruit picking? Why aren’t students who can’t take a gap year in Europe open to exploring Australia and following the harvest trail to fund it?

Piece rate problems

“There are two factors at play here,” Unions NSW Assistant Secretary Thomas Costa said. (Unions NSW is the peak body representing about 600,000 union members in NSW.) “The first is that the horticultural award allows workers to be paid a piece rate [by bucket, bin, punnet or kilo] rather than an hourly rate or a yearly salary as other workers are paid.”

And it’s the employers who get to decide the piece rate on a day-to-day basis. “They’re required under the award to choose a piece rate that will allow a worker to earn the minimum wage in the award, which is about $25 an hour for a casual employee, plus 15 percent if they perform their work at the level of a ‘reasonable worker’,” Costa said.

But there’s no mechanism for a review of the piece rate and because the employer gets to set it, it’s open to misuse. And misuse of piece rates has become rampant.

Research reveals

The Migrant Workers Centre and Unions NSW have conducted extensive research into the sector, published in a recent report, Working for $9 a day: Wage theft and human rights abuses on Australian farms. It reveals several unacceptable practices. “Hardly anyone gets paid minimum wage on piece rates in the horticultural industry and a large majority of workers get paid far below it – in some cases, just $2 an hour,” Costa said.

Take blueberry farming in Coffs Harbour. “We talked to workers there last year and found people being paid $6 for a 12-hour day,” Costa said. Other predatory practices include high accommodation costs and added charges for transport to and from farms.

Piece rates are not just below minimum wage, they are below the poverty line. As a direct result, the Australian Workers Union, which represents fruit pickers, filed an application in the Fair Work Commission in December 2020 to remove piece rates from the award. Unions NSW has been lobbying key politicians in Canberra.

Immigration issues

There is only one reason workers might put up with this treatment, which brings us to the second problem: Australia’s visa and immigration system. “About 84 percent of people we spoke to in our research are on a temporary visa,” Costa said.

To extend a working holiday visa, the visa holder needs to work for three months in a regional area, and they need proof they’ve done this through a signed form from the employer. “So the employers have a lot of control,” Costa said.

And when people are effectively dependent on their employer, they are prone not just to underpayment but also bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment.

In the UK’s recent trade deal with Australia, mandatory farm work for visas was scrapped over lack of safety after two British backpackers were murdered in 2016 during their three-month stint in Queensland’s canefields.

What needs to change

To protect the fruit pickers who work hard to keep food on our tables, unions are calling for two key changes.

“Remove the piece rates from the award and just pay workers in this industry the same way you pay workers in every other industry with an hourly rate or a salary,” Costa said. This would make it far easier to enforce their rights and disputes over fluctuating piece rates would end.

“We also need a change to our immigration system that doesn’t require people to work in a region or in a certain industry so that they can be effectively bonded to that region or that industry,” he said.

“People need a pathway to permanency so they can seek out whatever employment is best for them. This would encourage a healthy migration to the regions, giving people the opportunity to settle in those communities, become part of them and work for sustainable wages.”

New Zealand has already risen to this challenge. With borders closed, the nation’s farmers faced a shortage of workers to pick kiwifruit. So the farmers increased their rates of pay and introduced flexible working arrangements enabling people to come in after 9am and leave before 3pm.

“What they found was, a lot of the mothers in these regional communities who weren’t working elsewhere would drop their kids off at school, come and pick the fruit, then go collect the kids from school,” Costa said. “And they got it done – they delivered the full harvest doing that.”

Fairness and dignity

Katy, the fruit picker from South Australia, likes farm work. And she’s not the only one. “There are a lot of people who really enjoy the outdoor lifestyle,” Costa said. “The work is not the problem. The problem is the really horrendous pay and bad treatment.”

When farm workers have money in their pockets, they spend it in local communities, benefiting everyone; their pay is taxed, supporting government services; and superannuation is paid on their work, looking after their retirement.

“Most Australians just intuitively don’t want to see the system we have now,” Costa said. “Most think migrants should be able to come here and work hard, and if you want to start your family here and stay here, you should be able to – that’s kind of the Australian story.”

What you can do

  • Read the report: Working for $9 a day – Wage theft and human rights abuses on Australian farms, by Unions NSW and the Migrant Workers Centre:
  • Email your federal MP and ask them to raise questions in Parliament
  • Email the Minister for Agriculture, David Littleproud:
  • Email the Minister for Industrial Relations, Senator Michaelia Cash: