Farming groups have attacked a recent Fair Work Commission ruling that fruit pickers should be entitled to overtime if they work excessive hours:
Since April 2019 farmers have had to pay their casual workers overtime rates if they worked more than 38 hours a week (averaged out over an eight-week period), along with penalty rates to those working more than 12 hours a day or night-shifts.
The new rules were strongly opposed by farming groups when first flagged in 2018, with warnings that some farms would be forced out of business…
One of Australia’s largest fruit companies, Piñata Farms, said it has been hit twice as hard by the changes to award, due to long work hours and night harvesting…
“We are taking a pay cut to give to the workers”…
“In 1993 the average price of Northern Territory mangoes was $22.50 per tray, and picking wages were about $12.50 [per hour],” Mr Quin said.
“Today a carton of Northern Territory mangoes is $22.50, and picking wages are about double what they were in ”…
Senator Murray Watt, the shadow minister for northern Australia, said the issue of paying overtime would not exist if there were enough available workers in the horticultural industry…
“I think that is the real issue — how do we get the number of people who are required to pick the fruit, within reasonable hours?
“That is the nut we have to crack”…
“I think to expect people to work more than 38 hours in extremely hot, extremely humid conditions, they probably deserve a bit of a premium for doing so,” he said.
Piñata Farms’ rejected Mr Watt’s argument, saying while it was difficult to get Australians to pick fruit, there was ample access to Pacific Islanders through the Seasonal Worker Programme.
Here’s a novel thought: the reason why the horticultural sector is short on workers is because they don’t pay enough. It is a “labour market” after all. Therefore, the “market” will clear at the right price. If this means that we all have to pay a bit more for our fruit and vegetables, then so be it.
Recall that there has been a conga-line of reports on systemic exploitation of migrant workers across the horticulture industry.
In 2016, the Fair Work Ombudsman undertook an inquiry into Australia’s backpacker visa scheme, which noted that “many backpackers are being subjected to underpayment or non-payment, unlawful deductions, sexual harassment, unsafe working conditions and other forms of exploitation”.
The Senate’s scathing report, entitled A National Disgrace: The Exploitation of Temporary Work Visa Holders, also documented the abuses of Australia’s Working Holiday Maker visas system, which was “consistently reported to suffer widespread exploitation in the Australian workforce”.
In 2017, the National Temporary Migrant Work Survey found that one in every seven temporary migrant fruit and vegetable pickers were paid $5 an hour or less, and a third earned $10 an hour or less.
In late 2018, a group of academics reported that the exploitation of temporary migrant horticultural workers is rampant.
Whereas last year, the National Union of Workers (NUW) released a report, summarised by Crikey, on the “slave-like conditions” migrant workers are being subjected to on Australia’s farms, whereby “labour syndicates control every part of a worker’s life from dawn to dusk, and extract high fees for accommodation and transport”.
Aside from the moral imperative, improving fruit pickers’ wages and conditions makes good economic sense. Not only would it reduce rampant exploitation, but it would encourage farms to invest in labour-saving technology, thus improving productivity.
A key reason why developed economies are more efficient and have higher wages than their developing country counterparts is because they have invested heavily in labour-saving technologies and capital equipment.
For example, rather than having one hundred people with picks and shovels building a road, as occurs in developing countries (where labour is cheap), developed nations instead use a dozen people operating heavy machinery. The same applies to developed versus developing country agricultural production.
Therefore, by stopping rampant exploitation and allowing fruit pickers’ wages to rise, farmers will be forced to invest in becoming more efficient. The same principle applies to other areas of the Australian economy where migrant exploitation is rife.
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