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Australia calls into question performance-based payment for seasonal workers

Australia is considering changing the practice of paying its seasonal agricultural workers at the request of the country’s main union. ©Pixabay

Seasonal agricultural workers in Australia may no longer be paid by output, but only by the hour. A practice that some qualify as “significant underpayment”, while others see it more as a bulwark against the lack of manpower.

In his orchard planted with fruit-laden cherry trees, Australian arborist Michael Cunial boasts of pay-for-performance seasonal workers. “It’s a system that makes sense. If you roll up your sleeves, you can get paid pretty well. If you’re lazy, you won’t be. »

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A “significant underpayment” of seasonal workers

This year, thanks to the abundant rains and the good health of the trees, “we should have very big cherries”, rejoices this farmer who cultivates a 50-hectare orchard in the south-east of the country. At picking time in early December, he usually hires about 50 people. And like the vast majority of Australian horticultural farms, he pays his seasonal workers by performance.

But this method of payment was recently called into question by the Fair Work Commission, the Australian labor tribunal. Seized by one of the main trade unions in the country, theAustralian Workers Union (AWU), she estimated that seasonal agricultural workers should be paid the minimum wage, or 25.41 Australian dollars per hour (about 16 euros).

According to the union, “the evidence provided reveals the significant underpayment of performance workers in the horticultural industry”. A judgment opposed by the main federations of farmers who have until November 26, 2021 to appeal.

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The anger of seasonal workers in Australia

According to a study of more than 8,000 horticultural farms, published by the labor mediator in 2018, 56% of farms underpay some of their employees. Because rolling up your sleeves is not always enough. As observed by Victor, a young Frenchman who, like all those who come to Australia with a working holiday visamust complete 88 days of work on the farm to stay a second year.

“I worked in the vineyards, I had to wrap the branches around iron wires. We were paid 11 centimes net per branch rolled up. I was in the 10% who gave the most and yet I only got nine dollars an hour, less than half the minimum wage, ”he testifies. This is why Cédric, who is in his third year in Australia, has always “favoured farms that pay by the hour rather than by output”.

All seasonal workers can “make money”

Full-time for three years on Michael Cunial’s farm, Rémy supervises seasonal workers during the cherry harvest. “I have guys who can pick up 60 punnets, earn 700 Australian dollars (Editor’s note: 450 euros) in one day, and others only 9 punnets in the same orchard. The difference is due to motivation. »

“Of course, there are farms where even the good ones don’t make money because there isn’t enough fruit or the farm is poorly maintained,” he adds. But when there are people who manage to make money, everyone can make money. »

Michael Cunial is concerned about the upcoming changes. “If we switch to payment by the hour, the seasonal workers who don’t immediately do the job, I will have to part with it after barely half a day. But the optimal cherry picking period is only three to five days. If I cannot replace them very quickly, some of my fruit will rot on the vine…”, he laments.

A seasonal labor shortage

Michael Cunial lives all the more badly this decision that currently “we have a lot of trouble recruiting”. Australia’s borders, closed since March 2020 due to pandemic, are still not reopened to foreigners, and in particular to young people on working holiday visas. They were nearly 120,000 in December 2019, but only 39,000 in 2020.

To attract these rare seasonal workers, Michael Cunial raised his prices “by 5 to 10%” last year. This year he plans to add “a loyalty bonus, also of 5 to 10%, for those who will stay all season”.

Despite everything, the sector lacks hands, while Australia expects to have record agricultural production in value, all crops combined, of nearly 73 billion Australian dollars (47 billion euros) in 2021-2022, in 7% increase.

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