Fruit pickers guaranteed minimum wage

Changing industry: There is dispute across the farming sector over the guaranteed minimum wage rate. Photo by Rodney Braithwaite

The Fair Work Commission has announced fruit pickers nationwide will be given a guaranteed minimum wage rate from April 28, a historic industrial policy won by the Australian Workers’ Union last November.

Workers will be entitled to take home a casual rate pay of $25.41 an hour, an announcement some farmers have criticised as it may reduce the pool of labour.

AWU national secretary Daniel Walton said the scheme was “designed to never be a mechanism to exploit workers”.

“So many workers in this industry have been exploited — since 2016 there have been 11 separate inquiries into this industry, all of which keep coming back to say the same thing that is ‘exploitation is rife, it [fruit picking] is the centrepiece for exploitation’,” he said.

Mr Walton said this was also a way to ensure workers from overseas knew their wage rights, particularly for those new to the country for whom English was not their first language.

“This gives us the opportunity to really make sure that it's simple for a lot of workers, particularly those coming from overseas, to understand what they should be getting paid,” he said.

“In your backyard in Shepparton there's obviously been a number of examples, it is a big food bowl, in around Shepparton and the Goulburn Valley.”

Shepparton Ethnic Council community employment connector Deng Madeng is a former fruit picker who worked for a contractor, and said this policy was a “positive step”, but the wage could be raised to $30 per hour.

He said when first coming from South Sudan and working for a contractor in 2016, he felt like he and his fellow employees were exploited.

Federal Member for Nicholls Damian Drum said there should be action on the “few bad eggs" in the farming industry, but it should not be generalised across all farmers.

“There's a very small percentage of people in Australia that want to demonise this industry, and keep wanting to push this fact that there's all these farmers out there that are taking advantage of overseas workers — it’s just not true,” he said.

Mr Drum said people could still be paid more under a piece rate rather than the minimum wage arrangement.

“The minimum wage arrangement has been put in place by a whole range of people that are worried about the scare campaign from some that don't support bringing in overseas labour,” Mr Drum said.

“My understanding is that 80 to 90 per cent of all fruit pickers would make much more money picking under a piece rate than they would under a minimum wage arrangement.”

Fruit Growers Victoria chairman Mitchell McNab said it was an “evolving issue”, and would reduce the already limited amount of fruit pickers available due to COVID-19.

“It’s going to reduce the pool of labour again because growers are going to be dis-incentivised to employ new workers or new entrants to that labour force and it means that as a result there’s less people coming into that industry to fill those gaps,” he said.