$1 an hour: Hired to pick zucchinis, workers being paid peanuts

Young workers on Australian farms are being paid as little as $9 per day picking grapes and zucchinis, a new wage theft survey reveals.


Jun 15, 2021, updated Jun 15, 2021
A union survey has found that some young workers are effectively being paid less than $1 per hour to pick zucchinis. (file pic).

A union survey has found that some young workers are effectively being paid less than $1 per hour to pick zucchinis. (file pic).

The study, conducted by Unions NSW and the Migrant Workers Centre, interviewed more than 1300 horticulture industry workers in Australia.

It found that almost 80 per cent of the workers had been underpaid in agricultural work at some point, particularly those earning a “piece-rate wage” in which they are paid per piece of produce picked.

In this category, 15 per cent of workers earned less than $7 per hour, with some on grape and zucchini farms earning less than $1 per hour.

Despite proponents arguing piece-rate wages enable workers to earn more, just two per cent of respondents reported earning $26 or more per hour.

Furthermore, the survey found that – despite being in violation of the Horticulture Award – more than 60 per cent of workers were never given a choice between piece-rate or hourly pay by employers.

Piece-rate work was also found to be deeply unpredictable and unstable, with shifts spanning from one hour per day to 20 per day.

Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey said the survey showed worker exploitation on farms was near ubiquitous and systemic changes were required.

“The toxic reality is that the overwhelming majority of workers in this sector are being ripped off,” Morey said in a statement on Tuesday.

The union recommended authorities change the Horticulture Award to ensure workers are paid at least the applicable minimum wage.

It also called for alterations to the award which would ensure ordinary hours of work, meal allowances and overtime pay for piece-rate workers.

A broader criminalisation of wage theft in Australia was also recommended, which federal Labor has previously called on the government to enact.

“All workers, regardless of where they’re from or their visa status, deserve to earn a living wage, work in safe conditions and be treated with dignity and respect,” Migrant Workers Centre director Matt Kunkel said.

“This survey proves that the majority of farm managers are engaging in rampant wage theft and outright abuse.”

The survey comes after a similar report by Unions NSW in March – based on interviews and a survey of job advertisements for fruit-pickers – found workers were being paid as little as $1.25 per hour.

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