- by B Curphey
- The Guardian
- Issue #1987
Workers and union organisers with the United Workers Union (UWU) and the Australian Workers Union (AWU) are celebrating a massive win following a decision of the Fair Work Commission (FWC) to impose a minimum wage of $25.41/hour for farm workers employed under the Horticulture Award. It marks a milestone in a seven-year campaign to improve conditions for workers, but the fight is far from over.
It’s easy to focus on the piece rates decision but it must be considered in its broader context. While legal decisions help put pressure on governments and employers to enact change to working conditions, that pressure comes from many angles. The FWC decision is one outcome of a sustained effort by workers and their unions to clean up the horticulture industry.
THE FIGHT SO FAR
UWU began organising among farmworkers in 2015 to fight the exploitative conditions under the Horticulture Award, in an industry that was very poorly regulated. They have made significant progress towards getting rid of cash contracting as well as helping workers win back pay and stand up for their rights to avoid continued wage theft in the regions where they work.
The majority of farmworkers, around eighty per cent, are migrant workers. So far, government attempts to regulate and improve the industry have often focused on the backpackers and international students who they see as bringing money into the Australian economy. But backpackers and students are not the majority of farmworkers.
More often, horticulture workers are undocumented or have come to Australia seeking asylum by both boat and plane. Many workers in the industry are from Australia’s close neighbours in southeast Asia as well as refugee communities from Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.
Farmworkers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. For those who lack work rights, it is more complicated for their union to assist them when issues arise at work. In the past, these issues have been compounded by oversaturation in the industry. This kept the demand for labour low and undercut workers’ ability to bargain and negotiate with their employers collectively. The pandemic has helped to change that.
The reduction in short term, temporary migrant workers in the industry has empowered workers to bargain and negotiate with their employers more easily than when the industry was oversaturated. The rhetoric that “no one wants to work” hides the reality that workers are in a position to stand up for their rights in a way that has not been possible before.
A WIN FOR FARMWORKERS
In this context, the FWC handed down its decision on wages under the Horticulture Award. The ruling inserted a wage floor into the Award and effectively turned the piece-rate system into an incentive programme ensuring that workers will now earn at least $25.41 per hour.
Many workers in the industry are currently paid piece rates. The system is designed with the intention that it would enable them to earn more than the minimum wage. In reality, bosses often use piece rates to underpay workers, with some workers earning as little as $3 per hour.
In reaching its decision, the FWC found that “The existing pieceworker provisions in the horticulture award are not fit for purpose […] They do not provide a fair and relevant minimum safety net. The full bench was satisfied that the insertion of a minimum wage floor with consequential time recording provisions in the piecework clause is necessary to ensure that the horticulture award achieves the modern awards objective.”
Employers were quick to assert that the minimum wage would lead to a shortage of available jobs and price hikes for fresh produce. The Commission rejected the argument that amending the piece rate provisions would make workers less productive, calling that possibility “inherently unlikely.”
The fearmongering around price hikes in the industry is also likely to be unfounded. The industry is controlled in large part by the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance, a conglomerate of fourteen large companies that control a significant amount of employment in the horticulture industry, both directly and indirectly. These are highly profitable companies capable of absorbing the cost of paying decent wages.
Any price hikes would be a deliberate choice on the part of employers to increase profits, not a necessary cost of doing business. Unions will have their work cut out to ensure these new conditions are enforced and workers do not pay the price for employers’ greed.
WHAT NEXT FOR FARMWORKERS?
The Horticulture industry cannot be painted with a broad brush. Seasonal workers on piece rates are just one aspect of an industry that spans the entire country. So, while the piece rates decision is a step in the right direction, it isn’t the end of the road.
Unions have taken a creative approach to organising in the industry, particularly around job security. This is not as simple an issue as fighting for permanent contracts. It is also about attempting to create pathways to ongoing employment in Australia and lobbying for work visas to have inbuilt protections for workers so that people can join their union.
However, the piece rates decision is unlikely to significantly change UWU’s strategy for organising in the horticulture industry. As UWU National Organiser for the farmworkers’ campaign, Tim Nelthorpe stated, “Organising an unorganised industry takes generations and winning improvements to the award is usually the result of upward pressure from an organised workforce. The piece rate win has come after sustained pressure to change the status quo from ununionised farmworkers.
“This win will help improve things for workers but the day to day work we have done in creating permanent jobs, improving wages site by site and finding a pathway for those on temporary visas to have a right to return each season have only come through an active membership base who have built structures on their sites and across their growing regions. This work is never finished and we will continue to build on our work day by day, site by site, region by region.”
With a growing and active membership base, there will always be more work to be done to tackle the endemic problems in the industry. Putting pressure on governments to enact reforms to wages, conditions and visas are just one part of the puzzle. The real challenge is creating a culture where workers are empowered to respond to exploitation when it arises.