Fruit pickers get $25 wage floor in landmark decision

Casual fruit and vegetable pickers will be guaranteed a minimum wage of $25 an hour after the workplace tribunal found many farmers significantly underpaid workers.

A Fair Work Commission full bench found late on Wednesday that workers on farms were entitled to take home the minimum casual rate of pay, currently $25.41 an hour, in a case brought by the Australian Workers Union. The commission found that so-called piece rates were “not fit for purpose” and so were not a fair and relevant safety net.

A piece rate is where an employee is paid for the amount that is picked, packed, pruned or made.

The decision sparked grower concerns that they will no longer be able to afford piece rates that reward productivity at a time when the industry faces critical labour shortages due to border restrictions.

Currently, the horticulture award gives employers the option of paying the minimum wage or negotiating a piece rate that allows an “average competent worker” to earn 15 per cent more than the minimum.

However, the bench, headed by president Iain Ross, found growers set piece rates unilaterally and many did not determine them according to the award formula.

As a result, a “significant proportion” of workers on piece payments, particularly backpackers and visa workers, earned less than the minimum permanent wage rate of $20.33 an hour and a “substantial” proportion less than the 15 per cent extra target rate.

“Some pieceworkers earn significantly more than the ‘target rate’ for the average competent pieceworker … but the totality of the evidence presents a picture of significant underpayment of pieceworkers in the horticulture industry when compared to the minimum award hourly rate,” the decision said.

The bench’s proposed changes, expected to be finalised for next year, means that piece-rate workers will have to be paid at least the minimum hourly rate as well as earn piece rates that would allow a competent worker to earn 15 per cent more an hour.

Growers must also keep a record of all hours worked by the pieceworker.

AWU national secretary Daniel Walton said the decision was one of the most significant industrial decisions in modern times.

“This decision ranks among the great victories of our union’s 135-year history,” Mr Walton said.

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