Horticulture code changes in place, despite grower opposition

By Country News

Changes to the Horticulture Code officially came into effect on Monday, despite widespread opposition from the industry.

The Fair Work Commission announced new overtime provisions for casual horticulture employees on April 2, but gave the industry just two weeks to implement the changes.

Despite calls from the National Farmers’ Federation to extend the implementation to a minimum of six months, but preferably staggered over a course of years, the Fair Work Commission dismissed the concerns.

‘‘The industry has been on notice of the intention to introduce overtime payments for employees covered by the Horticulture Award since mid-2017,’’ the body said in its final decision.

Under the new provisions, horticulture growers must pay a 15 per cent night loading for casual employees working overnight or overtime rates where the employees work more than 12 hours per day or 304 hours over eight weeks.

But the NFF told the commission the decision would have a ‘‘very significant’’ financial impact on growers, saying they would need time to prepare for, manage and find ways to absorb the financial costs.

VFF horticulture president Emma Germano slammed the two-week implementation period as ‘‘unreasonable’’ and showing a ‘‘lack of understanding’’.

‘‘Farmers need time to revisit their budgets, business strategy and workforce planning to assess the impact of the change and modify their plans if needed,’’ she said.

‘‘We are concerned that the rush to comply could lead to mistakes and misunderstandings, resulting in non-compliance. The VFF urges the Fair Work Ombudsman to guarantee it will not prosecute farmers for accidental non-compliance for a period of 12 months after the implementation date.’’

A number of organisations including Fruit Growers Victoria, Turnbull Brothers Orchards and Vigliaturo Orchards made submissions to the Fair Work Commission.

The commission noted many of the submissions opposed or expressed serious concern about the changes.

Apple and Pear Limited said the industry had been ‘‘blindsided’’ by the decision and said the deadline had left growers ‘‘woefully short’’ of time to adjust.

‘‘It’s true that issue of overtime for casuals has been at the centre of intense lobbying over the past four years, but the rush to implement this decision has blindsided industry and could hurt both growers and employees,’’ APAL chief executive officer Phil Turnbull said.

Mr Turnbull said the decision had been made even more problematic by the number of public holidays — including Easter and Anzac Day — which will occurring during the April harvest season, attracting a rate of 225 per cent of the employee’s minimum hourly wage.