Fruit picker claims farmers know of ‘abysmal’ wages — but consumers hold key to better pay
As summer peaks and the pandemic lingers, farmers around Australia are watching their crops ripen but many don’t have enough workers to pick them before they wither.
- A seasonal worker says pay rates for fruit and vegetable pickers are “abysmal”
- The worker says consumers need to pay more for fresh produce so pickers can earn a fair wage
- But a grower claims he is paying pickers up to $40 an hour — well above the award rate
Despite 26,000 fewer overseas workers in Australia to pick all the blueberries, raspberries, cherries, vegetables and grapes that are ripening in fields and orchards across the nation — the pay and conditions simply aren’t good enough to entice Australians to fill the vacancies.
So what’s the solution?
A seasonal worker who spent two months picking and packing raspberries on a farm in Coffs Harbour, on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales, thinks he knows.
Tim (not his real name) says he believes consumers need to be prepared to pay more for their fresh produce so pickers can get a fair wage.
Picker paid ‘$11 to $13 an hour’
Tim, who went with his partner from overseas to the Coffs Harbour farm, said they worked for up to 10 hours a day, six days a week.
“It’s physically demanding, you’re up and down, basically squatting constantly all day and carrying buckets of fruit,” he said.
Tim said they were paid on piece rates that varied, based on the amount of fruit that had to be picked, the market price and even the weather.
But the couple couldn’t leave because Tim’s partner needed to complete 88 days of work to qualify for an extension to her visa.
However, they were constantly worried about losing their jobs.
“There was always a pervasive threat that we could be fired at any moment,” he said.
The accommodation was in share housing and the conditions were cramped.
Tim said no-one complained to the authorities because they didn’t think anything would be done, and the farmers were part of the problem.
“The growers seemed to be the ones determining the rate which the contractors could give us,” he said.
He said he thought farmers were being squeezed by the major retailers and the solution was for consumers to pay more, so that pickers could be paid a better wage.
Farmer says pay has risen
With 26,000 fewer seasonal workers in the country, pay rates are expected to go up.
Corrindi Beach blueberry grower Aman Lehl said he was paying his pickers well above the award rate of $27.80 an hour.
He concedes those rates do vary on a daily basis.
“We adjust our rates all the time based on how much fruit is on the trees, weather and things like that,” Mr Lehl said.
He said growers were checking the pay slips of people the labour-hire companies brought to their farms, to make sure they were getting their entitlements, but it was not the famers’ responsibility.
“At the end of the day, the grower is not Fair Work [the commission].
“We don’t have the resources to police the labour-hire companies, that’s the government’s job.