• Rikki Lambert

No piece in fruit picker wage battle - yet

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

The Australian Workers Union national secretary Daniel Walton has implied human trafficking exists in Australian horticulture in the latest foray in a fractious debate on farm labour.

Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud told Flow recently that the federal farm research body ABARES had identified a shortage of 30,000 workers in horticulture alone by February, in direct response to Mr Walton's previous claim there was a 'so-called' shortage.

Minister Littleproud told Flow that union leaders needed to get closer to farmers to comment on their issues, not '30,000 feet above them flying over them'.

Mr Walton hit back in an interview on Tuesday on Flow, available on the FlowNews24 podcast:

"It's a stinging blow from a politician who is a son of a politician who is a banker, of all people, making an assessment on officials who represent the workers who are being exploited on these farms."

Federal Attorney-General Michaelia Cash has declined to intervene in the Fair Work Commission's (FWC) piece rate determination establishing a minimum wage for fruit pickers and other horticulture workers - but has offered a glimmer of hope to the industry.

FlowNews24 asked the federal government whether it might intervene in the case given the severe impact farming peak bodies claimed would follow the Commission's early November decision upholding an Australian Workers Union case.

The NSW Farmers association told FlowNews24 through a spokesperson on Tuesday morning:

"NSW Farmers members have voiced their concerns about the Fair Work Commission’s decision to alter piece rate arrangement by introducing a floor hourly rate, telling us they are worried about the impact to business sustainability.
"The overwhelming majority of farmers do the right thing by their workers in terms of pay and conditions, and the number of workers returning to work on the same farms year after year is a strong sign that the current piece work arrangements are fit for purpose.
"There are very real fears that our farmers, who already need to compete with cheap imported produce on supermarket shelves, will be squeezed even tighter by a decision that does not take all factors into account, add to the administrative burden of farmers, and invariably result in higher workforce management costs."

Mr Walton expressed concern that the behaviour in some parts of horticulture equated to human trafficking:

"Before COVID-19 struck there were a lot of workers who came over via plane arrival on tourist visas, holidays, coming over her as supposed tourists, being met at an airport, whisked out on a bus, and then driven out into regional centres around the country. For a lot of those workers they've had their passports taken off them and they've been forced to work and remain on our farms and in many ways they are sort of trafficked around as human trafficking moving them from farm to farm.
"The reality is there is so much exploitation taking place in this industry that Blind Freddy knows, that if you go to work in the fruit and vegetable industry, chances are you're going to be ripped off. What we are trying to do is fix that because what we want to do is ensure there is fairness in every industry and unfortunately in agriculture, it's the worst!"

A spokesperson for the Attorney-General told Flow early on Tuesday:

"The Government notes the provisional decision of the Fair Work Commission in relation to the Horticulture Award. As this is a provisional decision, the matter is still before the Commission and they have provided opportunity for stakeholders to comment and make further submissions.
"The Government is considering the decision closely, but recognises this is a matter for the Fair Work Commission as the independent industrial relations umpire."

Minister Cash was quick to point to the Australian Labor Party's previous history on the matter:

"I note that the former Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard intervened in August 2009 and requested the then Australian Industrial Relations Commission put in place a piece rate payment structure in the horticulture award without a minimum hourly wage guarantee."

The federal government joined the universal refrain on hitting out at those that do exploit farm labourers:

"The Government has zero tolerance for any exploitation of workers and comply with award obligations. The Government is committed to ensuring all workers have the opportunity to make a positive contribution to the Australian economy, without fear of exploitation.
"I encourage workers with concerns about their workplace entitlements, including pay and conditions, to contact the Fair Work Ombudsman for assistance on 13 13 94."

The federal opposition has been contacted for comment.

The National Farmers' Federation declined to comment.

The NSW Farmers say they're exploring ways to respond effectively to the FWC draft determination:

"We are engaging with members to assess what impact this decision will have on farming operations, such as the resulting increase in costs from additional administration requirements and impact on business sustainability. We are also concerned about what implications this may have for broader regional communities."