Piece rate ruling ‘disappointing’ and a ‘bitter blow’ for growers, with it set to cost them tens of thousands

Shannon Verhagen & Courtney GouldCountryman
Pomewest chair Mark Scott.
Camera IconPomewest chair Mark Scott.

The Fair Work Commission’s decision to introduce a floor price on piece rates will cost fruit and vegetable growers hundreds of thousands, with industry groups slamming it as a “bitter blow”.

It has prompted calls for supermarket giants to not saddle farmers already grappling with labour shortages with rising costs and instead ask consumers to pay more.

The Commission last week ruled the provisions for piece rate work under the horticulture award were “not fit for purpose” and guaranteed workers a minimum wage of $25.41 per hour.

The National Farmers Federation labelled the decision as “bowing” to the Australian Workers Union’s demands and pushing many farmers’ wage costs to unsustainable levels.

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NFF chief executive Tony Mahar said the decision “cast an aspersion that all Australian farmers set out to rip off workers”.

He said piece rates rewarded the most productive workers.

“The overwhelming number of farmers take enormous pride in being fair employers and providing rewarding jobs to Australian and foreign workers,” Mr Mahar said.

“The increase in wage costs, most farm’s largest input, threatens to make the most productive workers unaffordable. The loss of these workers will put a handbrake on agriculture’s growth.”

Pomewest chair and Nannup apple grower Mark Scott said the ruling was “disappointing” but “not really surprising”.

Mr Scott said bigger operations would be most affected, with farmers having to find extra management staff, which they will have to pay a management wage, to ensure productivity of their staff.

“All of a sudden not only are you having to pay the worker a full wage for the day — which is fair — but to maintain the productivity and cost per bin, the grower is going to have to employ an extra 10 staff to manage that and that’s where the cost is going to come back to the growers,” he said.

Mr Scott said the move could add tens of thousands of dollars to growers’ costs of production and during an already turbulent time.

He said consumers needed to be aware that this decision would have a flow-on effect.

Australian Workers Union secretary Dan Walton labelled the decision an “historic win” for farm workers who have been paid below the award wage.

“Fruit pickers in Australia have been routinely and systemically exploited and underpaid. Too many farmers have been able to manipulate the piece rate system to establish pay and conditions far beneath Australian standards,” he said.

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