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‘Cannot turn away from it’: Albanese blasts PM over $2 farm pay

Lucy Dean
·3-min read
Anthony Albanese has said the Government needs to do more to address poor wages for farm workers. Images: Getty
Anthony Albanese has said the Government needs to do more to address poor wages for farm workers. Images: Getty

Many farm workers are earning less than $2 an hour due to chronic wage theft and underpayment structures and the Government must address it, Labor leader Anthony Albanese said on Friday.

A major report from Unions NSW found that 88 per cent of ads for farm and fruit picking work offers wages based on a piece rate, with 96 per cent of these piece rates not allowing a worker to earn the minimum wage.

Additionally, 65 per cent of the ads for strawberry picking would mean most workers would earn less than $2 an hour.

“We cannot turn away from it,” Labor leader Anthony Albanese said.

“We need to do much, much better and we need to address this now.”

Unions NSW’s analysis of 1,000 job ads also named Bundaberg, Caboolture, Beerwah and Banksia Grove as some of the worst regions for underpayment.

“It needs addressing. We do need to address the need to make sure that our agricultural produce is able to be picked, that our farms are allowed to operate,” Albanese said.

“But we need to do it in a way that... we can be proud of the product we produce because there are many farmers out there overwhelmingly who are doing the right thing. And if you allow exploitation to occur, you are putting them at a competitive disadvantage by doing the right thing.”

A growing problem

Fruit and vegetable prices in Australia could jump as much as 29 per cent this year due to reduced labour supply, as COVID-19 border restrictions stop backpackers from heading to Australia.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has suggested Australians on JobSeeker head to the regions to take up fruit picking work.

“If there is a job available, and you are able to do that job, then it is reasonable for taxpayers to expect that you will take it up, rather than continue to receive benefits. And if you don’t, then payment should be withdrawn,” he said last week.

However, the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU) noted that 10,500 Australians have taken up work on farms in the six months to February, while 3,500 were rejected for work.

The AUWU said that if farmers are having difficulty finding staff, the Government should investigate the working conditions on the farms.

Wage theft in the spotlight

The Unions NSW research comes as the Government ditches the majority of its planned workplace reforms, including higher penalties for wage theft.

The Government turfed the package after it became clear it was unlikely to garner the support of the cross-bench. The bill included changes to enterprise bargaining and award simplification, but had been heavily criticised by Labor and the union movement.

However, the bill’s provision to criminalise wage theft was met with bipartisan support.

“We saw the Government engaging in petulant and active vindictiveness because it couldn't get its wage cuts through the Senate," Albanese said.

"They got rid of the provisions that were supported by every senator and every member of the House of Representatives about wage theft.

"An extraordinary act from an immature government that is in chaos."

The only part of the bill that remains is increased rights for workers to push for permanency. However, employers can also now classify workers as casual even if their work hours are permanent and predictable.

"There are many in the Senate and the Labor Party in particular who don't share my passion for creating jobs," Morrison said on Thursday.

"I am a practical person, too. That means if this Senate is saying they don't wish to support those measures, then we will have to consider that in terms of how we go forward because I will send them other things to approve."

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Image: Yahoo Finance
Image: Yahoo Finance