Pick­ers’ pace un­der fire

Central and North Rural Weekly - - NEWS - AN­DREA DAVY An­drea.davy@ru­ral­weekly.com.au

HOW much an av­er­age com­pe­tent mush­room picker can pick is the sub­ject of hot con­tention dur­ing an un­der­pay­ment case.

The Na­tional Farm­ers’ Fed­er­a­tion be­come an in­ter­venor in the Fed­eral Court case brought by the Fair Work Om­buds­man against Mar­land Mush­rooms, it’s owner Troy Mar­land and labour hire firm HRS Coun­try.

The Sta­ply­ton farm­ing busi­ness has been ac­cused of un­der­pay­ing more than 400 work­ers $646,000 dur­ing an eight-month pe­riod in 2014.

The case may have wider im­pli­ca­tions for piece rates, which are widely used through­out agri­cul­ture.

Un­der the Hor­ti­cul­ture Award, if piece rates are paid to pick­ers it must al­low an “av­er­age com­pe­tent worker” to earn at least 15 per cent more than the min­i­mum hourly rate.

Bar­ris­ter for the NFF Richard Dal­ton pre­vi­ously de­scribed the FWO’s case as “fun­da­men­tally de­fec­tive”.

Dur­ing the Fed­eral Court hear­ing he ex­plained to jus­tice Dar­ryl Ran­giah the im­por­tance of piece rates, as hor­ti­cul­ture in­volved sea­sonal work and the need to har­vest pro­duce quickly within short pe­ri­ods of time; es­sen­tially, piece rates en­cour­aged re­li­able em­ploy­ees to work hard and be re­warded for their ef­fec­tive­ness dur­ing that time.

Mr Dal­ton urged Mr Ran­giah to view the FWO’s pick-rate data high­lighted dur­ing the trial “cau­tiously”, as much of the in­for­ma­tion pre­sented was taken af­ter the un­der­pay­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

FWO bar­ris­ter Justin Bourke ar­gued that dur­ing an eight-month pe­riod in 2014 the av­er­age num­ber of ki­los picked per hour was 14, short of the 29.5 ki­los needed to reach the award.

He ar­gued there were hun­dreds of work­ers em­ployed by HRS Coun­try and “not one” was able to meet the av­er­age needed.

How­ever, coun­sel for Troy Mar­land, Robert Bain, ar­gued com­pe­tent mush­room pick­ers could col­lect more than 30 ki­los per hour, “and they could do it com­fort­ably”.

He also said top pick­ers, “the Jackie Howes of mush­rooms” could pick up to 80kg per hour.

He sug­gested there were three at­tributes of an ef­fi­cient mush­room picker: dili­gence, ap­ti­tude and ex­pe­ri­ence.

But he said not all em­ploy­ees had the de­sire to ob­tain those qual­i­ties.

Mr Bain stressed the pick-rate data was col­lected dur­ing a time when work­ers were heav­ily tran­sient, some not stay­ing longer than a few weeks, so the ex­pe­ri­ence needed to reach the av­er­age was not ob­tained.

He said it was “com­mon sense” that work­ers would pick faster the more ex­pe­ri­enced they were.

How­ever, in Mr Bourke’s clos­ing ar­gu­ments he said there were work­ers re­ceiv­ing as lit­tle as $5 per hour, “so it’s no won­der why they left”.

He said a rate needed to be set for an av­er­age com­pe­tent em­ployee within that work­ing en­vi­ron­ment.

“It’s... not bust a gut and work like you are in a sweat shop so you can make the rate,” he said.

The mat­ter has now been ad­journed.

PHOTO: FILE

FED­ERAL COURT: Mar­land Mush­rooms’ grow­ing fa­cil­ity at Stapyl­ton.

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