The Guardian • Issue #2089

AWU wins $30k backpay

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2089
Zucchini picker at work.

Photo: (Public domain).

If anyone thinks wage theft is a thing of the past, they should think again. The Australian Workers Union (AWU) has reclaimed $30,000 for two migrant workers in Victoria. The workers were employed as cleaners in a packhouse in country Victoria, and were not paid weekend and evening penalty rates, overtime, or shift allowances. Action by an AWU organiser after one of the workers mentioned his flat hourly rate, uncovered what the organiser has called “intentional” wage theft.

“Everyone knows the company is dodgy”, the organiser, Shenae, explained “and it’s really hard for PALM [Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme] workers to understand their rights and entitlements and how the Horticulture Award works. Almost no other country in the Pacific has the same wage system with penalties and overtime.”

These stories are all too common. Despite securing a minimum wage for piece-rate workers in 2021, the AWU still frequently encounters the exploitation of PALM and seasonal workers in the horticultural industry, including underpayments, excessive deductions, and overcrowded, substandard accommodation.

As well as enforcing minimum standards across the country, the AWU has pushed to strengthen the PALM scheme to provide protections and support to migrant workers. These recent changes include a minimum guaranteed 30 hours of work per week averaged over a month, a minimum weekly take-home pay of $200 a week, and a low hour safety net so that no PALM workers can be charged for their accommodation and travel if they are offered less than 20 hours of work per week.

AWU National Secretary Paul Farrow says the changes are a necessity for the horticultural industry. “Workers in Australia deserve to be paid Australian wages and entitlements,” he says.

“When we welcome our neighbours in the Pacific to come and work on our farms, and pick and pack the fruit and vegetables that end up on our dinner table, we have a responsibility to provide decent wages and conditions.”

“The widespread exploitation and abuse we have seen on Australian farms has got to stop, and the AWU is taking every effort to both enforce minimum standards and make the PALM scheme fairer for workers.”

In Mildura, Agassi has since found a new job – that pays his full wages and entitlements. He reckons without the AWU, he’d never have known he was underpaid, and wouldn’t know how to fight for his entitlements.

It’s important to speak up, he says. Any horticulture worker who needs it should seek the AWU’s support – and not to worry about bosses. “The union is here to help!” He says. “If you’re afraid of letting your boss know you’ve joined the union, they’ll handle everything.”

“My advice? It’s just join the union!”

(edited for reasons of space)

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