A DECISION requiring horticulture workers to be paid a minimum wage will hurt Australia’s competitiveness and reduce diversity of crops, according to Member for Mallee Anne Webster.
Horticulture employers will soon no longer be able to pay workers purely under the piece rate model, where workers are paid on what they pick.
From April 28, workers under the Horticulture Award must be paid a minimum of $25.41 an hour, following a Fair Work Commission decision.
Workers can still earn a piece rate that pushes their wage above the minimum.
In Sunraysia, the Minter family has decided it will rip out its asparagus crop and switch to almonds as a result of rising labour costs.
Dr Webster said while she wasn’t saying things didn’t need to change, the new base rate model would lead to “people not working too hard”.
“Horticulture is not the same as other jobs,” she said.
“The piece rate system worked very well, because the people who came … worked their butts off, because they would want to earn more money.
“When you’ve got a base rate, with a small amount of piece rate on top, instead of picking six or seven bins a day, they can drop to two or three.”
The comments were at odds with the Fair Work Commission’s findings.
Fair Work acknowledged receiving industry feedback that a wage floor would take away incentive and encourage “laziness”.
But in its decision it concluded these assertions were “speculative and unsupported by any evidence”.
“We are not persuaded that introducing a minimum wage floor will ‘disincentivise’ pieceworkers currently earning more than the minimum award rate,” the decision said.
“It seems to us that such an outcome is inherently unlikely.”
Asked if Fair Work were wrong, Dr Webster said it didn’t reflect what she had been hearing.
“The reality is farmers on the ground don’t believe that will be the case,” she said.
“I don’t hear any of the farmers saying ‘this is a great decision’.”
Dr Webster said there was a “perfect storm” facing growers, with the wage decision adding to “weighty” regulation, difficulties finding workers through COVID and the wait for an Ag Visa, and other input cost challenges, including water and fuel.
She said this was making it hard for growers to compete with countries such as Mexico.
Dr Webster said she was concerned the move to mechanical farming systems would reduce the diversity of what’s grown in Australia.
“My view is that there should be some way − and I don’t know what it is − there needs to be a way of rewarding work ethic as well as paying a fair wage,” she said.
Asked if the benefits of piece rates were such that they should be extended to other industries, such as allowing supermarkets to pay based on how many shelves a worker stacks, Dr Webster said Australia needed to get realistic about productivity.
“Somebody this week was talking about a four-day work week and three-day weekends − we need to be real about productivity,” she said.
“We will have more coming in from international exporters if we don’t have a more realistic view of wages, particularly in horticulture.”
− MICHAEL DIFABRIZIO