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Farm Workers Getting Organised Against Big Wage Swindle

Written by: Ned K. on 19 December 2020


Wage swindles with farm workers being paid piece rates less than even the minimum legal Award wage have been occurring for years. 

However, as Bob Dylan would say, "the times they are a-changing". Even now in 2020 there are reports of farm workers being paid piece work equivalent to $3 an hour (Australian Financial Review 16 December 2020).

Farm workers have traditionally been covered by the Australian Workers Union but they fell into the trap of focusing organising resources on bigger industrial worksites where there were large concentrations of workers in full-time employment and with a long tradition of unionism. Steel works, aluminium smelters and foundries were the priority and farm workers, whether picking mushrooms, tomatoes, potatoes or cherries for the Xmas dinner tables were put in the too hard basket. 

The majority of farm workers do not have continuous employment in the one place all the year round but follow the harvest times of many different crops. Many are new migrant workers but there is a significant percentage of farm workers who have worked in the industry for years.

Some of them started to look elsewhere for support to get organised and to put an end to the wage swindles and poor working conditions they had endured for years. 

The former National Union of Workers (NUW now UWU) had a more strategic approach and realised that farm workers are the first stage of the supply chain while at the other end of the supply chain, giant retailers like Coles and Woolworths  and large food exporting corporations have been the beneficiaries of the farm worker wage swindles. 

Progressive leader elements in the NUW, especially in Victoria, decided to answer farm workers' call for help, and to extend their organising resources from food processing factories and warehouse distribution of food products to farm workers.

Migrant communities in Victoria had seen that the NUW Organisers supported the migrant workers in the Baiada poultry processing strike in Victoria several years ago and this gave them hope that if they stuck together, these Union Organisers would support them too.

Farm workers across Victoria and South Australia started joining the NUW and won concessions from labor hire companies through collective action and media exposure of their poor working conditions. 

Workers won the right to become regular seasonal workers, with better accommodation and wages instead of piece work, including overtime. Most important of all though was that farm workers in their Union built enough collective strength to prevent the employers from paying them far below the minimum wage. Employers were utilising a provision in the Horticultural Award which enabled them to determine what "the average competent employee" meant for purposes of a farm worker being paid the Award requirement of piece work rate at least 15% above the Award minimum.  
Even a farm worker who an employer did deem to be an "average competent" employee would still not have to be paid overtime and there was no limit under the Award as to how many hours a farm worker could be made to work in a day or week.

As more and more farm workers organised, and the Australian Workers Union lost more and more members through plant closures and the decline of metal manufacturing industries, the Australian Workers Union, too, are focusing more on farm workers as potential union members.

This December the Australian Workers Union lodged an application with the Fair Work Commission to vary the Horticultural Award so that every farm worker, whether on piece work or an hourly wage, has to receive the minimum casual rate of $24.80 per hour.

Shame of the Gillard Government

When reporting on the Union's application to vary the Award, the Australian Financial Review revealed that when the Gillard Government was in office, it intervened in a Fair Work Commission case in support of there being no minimum rate for piecework farm workers in the Award!

Success in the Australian Workers Union application for all farm workers to receive a minimum wage will be a result of years of struggle by farm workers themselves and the support they have received from progressive leaders within migrant communities and the rival union, United Workers Union.

The more far-sighted corporations benefiting from the wage theft and resulting higher profits that have prevailed for years in the fresh food supply chains may be hoping that the Australian Workers Union's application to vary the Award minimum rate for piece workers will put the brakes on rising farm worker militancy.

Hopefully both Unions' leaderships work together in the interests of tens of thousands of farm workers to lift their wages and conditions above just the minimum Award standards, With over 100,000 farm workers in Australia and total union membership in the sector well below the 50% mark, there is plenty of room for both Unions to play a progressive role.


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