• Rikki Lambert

Webster's whammy for AWU over ag visa and horticulture award

With the sun perhaps setting on a Coalition agriculture era, how will Labor revive farm labour?

Farmers and a north-western Victorian MP have hit back at an Australian Workers Union pledge to get whistleblowers to dob in farmers that complained about award rates as the Coalition claims federal Labor has abandoned farmers.

On Wednesday morning the AWU declared its offensive against some farmers, specifically those that had complained about the new award.

AWU national secretary Daniel Walton said the union would be using online tools and other methods to elicit whistleblower complaints from the same farmers who had complained in the public arena about the new award:

"If you're out there whinging your business model can't survive paying the Australian minimum wage, then it's fair to assume you might have been ripping off your workers.
"We thank the complainers for giving us a good place to start in our new drive to identify historic and current underpayment in the industry.
"We strongly encourage anyone who has picked fruit in Australia, and who thinks they may have been ripped off, to contact us or to use the new calculator we've set up.
"The only way we fix this nasty scourge of underpayment and abuse is to start tackling it head on. There are many good farmers out there who respect Australian pay and Australian conditions. They shouldn't be placed at a competitive disadvantage against the shonks and abusers that have been allowed to grow endemic under the current federal government."

Victoria's Sunraysia region is one of Australia's horticulture reliant primary industry regions and Nationals member for Mallee Anne Webster told Flow listeners she was irate at the union's stance towards farmers in her electorate:

"I find the modus operandi of the AWU and Daniel Walton regarding the ag visa, and the base wage which Fair Work has approved, quite appalling.
"The argument that growers now with this new model of wages will not be able to make a dime is absolutely true. I hear it across the board. And its not because they are dishonest. It's because piece rates in horticulture in particular has the right people doing the job, who work fast, who achieve a lot, can make incredibly good wages. Now with a base wage, there is a great risk - and in fact I do hear stories already - that people can work at snail's pace, still get a basic wage, and - while the argument is if they work fast they can still get some piece rates - but certainly not the rate they were earning."

Hear the full interview with Anne Webster MP on the Flow podcast player below:

NSW Farmers Industrial Relations Committee chair Chris Stillard said it was disgraceful that the Australian Workers Union was threatening farmers while ordinary Australians worried about the cost of groceries:

"The union is suggesting that anyone who raises concerns about the union movement must be a shonky operator.
"This just shows how out of touch they are; ordinary Australians are concerned about the cost of their supermarket trolley but the union is going after the people who grow our food.
"Farmers want to get on with producing food, and tactics to undermine them are disappointing when so many families are struggling with the cost of living."

Dr Webster said federal Labor's position on the Ag Visa was putting international relations at risk:

"(Labor) do not understand horticultural industries, do not understand the agricultural sector and have no line of sight on regional communities - it's really concerning.
"It is truly insulting to national relations with Vietnam that the Labor Party have not come out and said they will maintain the Vietnamese MOU at this stage. Furthermore it puts in jeopardy any other agreement that might be made with other countries. They have not done Australia proud on this and certainly not done the agricultural sector proud."

Labor's Shadow Minister for the International Development and the Pacific Pat Conroy said last Tuesday:

"(W)hat we've seen is abuse of all the temporary migration schemes. One of the challenges is they've got different levels of protection in them. And we've heard feedback from employers that the Pacific labour ones generally have a bit better protection than the other schemes and therefore, the scrupulous employers have been undercutting using Pacific labor by using the other schemes. And that's why we've been so focused on lifting the standards of all the schemes.
"We have announced increased compliance activity that's really important. They include putting a firewall between the Department of Home Affairs and the Fair Work Ombudsman so that temporary migrant workers don't risk their visa by calling attention to abusers.
"We will work with state and territory Governments and Local Governments around one of the most notorious abuses, which is not so much being abused at work, but a worker then being packed in 14 or 15, to a four bedroom home and paying enormous rents that wipe away their salary."

Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud on Sunday criticised Labor's lack of a comprehensive agriculture policy, saying the AWU were their political masters demanding they ditch the Agriculture Visa. Minister Littleproud had also claimed on Thursday that farmers were telling Australians that the Labor Party will cause worker shortages in the agriculture sector:

“The AWU have demonised the people who keep us fed and clothed.
“Worker shortages are a significant contributor to grocery food prices rising 4 per cent in in the first three months of this year, it is clear we need more workers to keep prices down."