A UNION initiative to establish wage calculators to investigate potential underpayment of agricultural workers has met stiff opposition from farmer bodies.
The Australian Workers Union on Tuesday launched an initiative to investigate farms the union suspects have been underpaying their workers, starting with employers who have publicly claimed changes to the Horticulture Award have destroyed their business model.
The union has said it will also establish a wage calculator for workers operating under the Pastoral Award, that covers general agricultural, sheep and wool sector employees.
The union said the new Horticulture Award mandating a baseline rate of pay to sit beneath the piece rate system has prompted several farm owners to publicly claim their business models have been destroyed. The AWU said if an employer’s business model is destroyed by having to meet Australian minimum wage requirements, it is likely these employers may have been routinely underpaying workers by a significant margin.
The AWU said its organisers will now be seeking to contact workers employed by these farms to check if they are owed money. The union will also be launching a new online tool for migrant workers – available in English and Chinese at launch – which will enable them to easily check whether they are being underpaid.
“If you’re out there whinging your business model can’t survive paying the Australian minimum wage, then it’s fair to assume you might have been ripping off your workers,” AWU national secretary Daniel Walton said.
“The National Farmers Federation, when they were opposing the safety net we now have, kept telling everyone that no worker on piece rates was getting paid below the minimum wage anyway.
“If that’s the case, where’s all this complaining we’ve seen in the media coming from? Mr Walton asked.
“The only way we fix this nasty scourge of underpayment and abuse is to start tackling it head on.
“There are many good farmers out there who respect Australian pay and Australian conditions,” he said.
“They shouldn’t be placed at a competitive disadvantage against the shonks and abusers that have been allowed to grow endemic under the current federal government.”
Mr Walton said the wool/shearing industry is currently enjoying a period of pay rates and positive action by shearers and their employers on their conditions of work.
“This is the result of advocacy from AWU members and the union’s focused work over the past few years,” he said.
But Mr Walton confirmed the AWU intends to develop a pay calculator for the wool industry.
SCAA supports AWU role, but disputes need for a wage calculator
National secretary of the Shearing Contractors Association of Australia Jason Letchford said the SCAA supports the work of the AWU to ensure fair pay and conditions for all workers, including overseas workers on visas.
“For more than 100 years, the AWU has played an important role in this process.
“That said, any employer who is looking at minimum standards and minimum conditions, is not in the game at present,” he said.
“The shearing industry is now competing at a global level for workers and any employers who are not paying highly competitive pay rates and not working with Farmers to improve conditions, are getting left behind.
“Therefore the relevance or need for a ‘pay calculator’ will be questionable for some years to come – until such a time when the supply of skilled shearing labour exceeds the demand for it, and that is not going to happen any time soon.”
Wage calculator is an attempt to harvest information – NFF
The National Farmers Federation said the AWU’s so-called ‘Piece Rates calculator’ is an old-fashioned online form to harvest personal information to be used for membership drives and mailing lists. The ‘calculator’ doesn’t even bother to collect basic information required to determine the accuracy of the take-home pay, such as the worker’s classification, the amount they picked, any allowances they are owed, or even the piece rate, the NFF said.
NFF chief executive officer Tony Mahar said the union is more interested in collecting emails addresses and phone numbers.
“The farm workforce used to be a pillar of the AWU membership.
“Predictably workers have long since realised the cost of AWU membership compared to the value delivered, amounts to nothing short of a rip-off,’ he said.
“The ‘calculator’ being pedaled by the AWU does nothing to help address the challenge and should be called out for what it is: a poorly-masked membership drive.
“The NFF supports trusted ways to help navigate the cumbersome system. The obvious way is via the Fair Work Ombudsman’s range of tools farmers and farm workers can apply to better understand their rights and obligations,” Mr Mahar said.
“The NFF encourages all farm workers use these tools and report any instances of underpayment to the FWO.
“Any and all farm businesses underpaying or exploiting workers must be called out and held to account,” he said.
“Unfortunately workers providing their email address and pay slips to the AWU via the ‘calculator’ will no doubt result in nothing more than annoying spam emails targeting their hard-earned in exchange for a miserable membership.”
Threats to farmers are disgraceful – NSW Farmers
NSW Farmers Industrial Relations Committee chair Chris Stillard said it was disgraceful that the Australian Workers Union was threatening farmers while ordinary Australians worried about the cost of groceries.
“The union is suggesting that anyone who raises concerns about the union movement must be a shonky operator.
“This just shows how out of touch they are; ordinary Australians are concerned about the cost of their supermarket trolley but the union is going after the people who grow our food,” Mr Stillard said.
“Farmers want to get on with producing food, and tactics to undermine them are disappointing when so many families are struggling with the cost of living.”
Mr Stillard said the AWU’s political posturing in the middle of a federal election campaign would only make matters worse, not better.
“With the current worker shortage, it defies logic for farmers to underpay their workers,” Mr Stillard said.
“Those workers could simply find better paying work elsewhere, and we’re seeing strong competition among farmers to secure good workers.
“The unions need to realise that their approach would simply lead to the end of Australian farms and leave us importing all of our food,” he said.