Farmers: Fruit pickers should not get paid overtime

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 [1993]”…

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.

Leith van Onselen


  1. 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…

    This old furphy… everybody knows that employers would much rather employ fewer people and make them work unpaid overtime than employ more people & pay them for regular hours. Especially when there are another 50,000 unemployed guys on the sidelines looking on, this works extremely well, because the few employed people will much more gladly submit to the unpaid overtime.

    Is this Watt ignoramus guy a Labor dude, to add insult to injury?

  2. If you were to raise wages it would push the prices of those fruits to a point where Australian farmers could not compete with overseas farmers.

    I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t raise those wages. I am suggesting minimum wages are incompatible with Globalisation.

      • The multifaceted race to zero. Wages, Company Taxes, Currency wars, Food quality, etc… but we have iPhones.

      • It is a race to the bottom for workers, and that is a long way down for most workers in Australia. Although significantly less so for those currently employed picking fruit here.

    • The Japanese protect their agriculture market by banning import, and it works pretty well. Rockmelons that cost $100 aside, fruits like oranges and mandarin are better quality and have many regional varieties as well.

    • HadronCollisionMEMBER

      When we talk high wages, we should of course talk about everyone’s wages
      Police, teachers, firerighter

        • HadronCollisionMEMBER

          I don’t disagree

          My point is that “high wages” are used to hide the real issues.

          Labor’s inability (unwillingness) to engage on this point is telling

    • Completely true. Australia needs to bring back tariffs, sadly the propaganda around free trade is so powerful even the majority of readers on macrobusiness would think it is a good thing.

      • Tariffs on their own won’t do. Tariffs on their on will just improve local corporates profit margins.

        Need both tariffs to keep foreign goods out and keep the coolies out. Then we might start on the road to somewhere.

      • Tariffs only work for non-exporting businesses. Once a business starts exporting, the tariff is no use unless there is market discrimination – ie. sell for higher price in the local rather than export market.

  3. Too bad the farmers don’t want to mention that their business activities are already massively subsidised by a community which underwrites the existence of their wage slaves by paying for the infrastructure they use to survive.

    Their pickers dont pay tax yet they use our communal infrastructure.

    • Having worked as a picker and done other seasonal work the tax depends upon the farmer, work contractor. If they are above board then you do pay tax. If they aren’t then you end up in the black market. It is much harder to hold down work on the above board ones as they, understandably, demand a higher standard from their workers. You don’t even want to know what it is like on the worst farms. I’ve seen farmers drive into ladders that had pickers on them and then abuse the person they are underpaying and then charging slum like accommodation for as if it was their fault. Agriculture make the hospitality industry seem enlightened and progressive in comparison. I’d suggest that anyone who calls people lazy and unmotivated for not moving to under resourced rural areas to take up seasonal work has never experienced it. I would always counsel people to not do it unless there was a proper ongoing agreement in place and they could confirm that their potential employer is legitimate and will meet their obligations.

  4. Farmers biggest cost is the land on which they grow their produce. That value in most cases in unrepresentative of the production and profits made from the land. Sad world we live in, when to maintain those values, farming bodies have to resort to employing slave type from the Pacific Islands.

    • The Pacific Islands Scheme is regulated. that’s why farmers pushed for the backpacker scheme extension.

  5. kiwikarynMEMBER

    Considering that picking fruit is at maximum a few weeks of work, I would have thought it ideal for overseas temporary workers – come in, work for 6 weeks, go home. The real rort is “temporary” workers who are engaged in full time work for years.

    • Can pick for nine months, starting in Carnarvon, then working around clockwise ending up in Tassie.

  6. Work of this type is overkill for average IQ 100 population with full government services.
    Bring in migrant workers from Australasia, average IQ 80, to do it for months instead.
    They can receive a primary education in their home countries and learn how to speak and read English.
    Then come to Australia to work hard for a few months with their brethren then go back to their tropical paradise with thousands of dollars in their pocket to do with as they please.
    We just need to encourage contraception in these colonial provinces to maintain a steady population and avoid overcrowding and societal breakdown, and discourage processed food and sugar to maintain a fit and active population.

  7. LOL farm economics by a desk jockey. I think those farms will be going out of business or fruit will be harvested by machine. How much of a premium do you think Australian manual farm workers can be paid over any other nation?

    • Bring in Gina’s $5/day workers.

      Or sell Northern Australia to the highest bidder (PRC in partnership with Gina/Twiggy?) so the new owners can do what they like.

  8. Written in a comfy chair in a city somewhere, without any reference to reality… targeting probably the most vulnerable sector! Quality.