Piece rates in the spot­light

Pick­ing pace ex­am­ined in Fed­eral Court case

NewsMail - Wide Bay Rural Weekly - - NEWS - . . AN­DREA DAVY An­drea.davy@ru­ral­weekly.com.au

A SU­PER­VI­SOR tes­ti­fy­ing in a trial scru­ti­n­is­ing hor­ti­cul­ture pay­ment rates said mush­room pick­ers worked more slowly when they chose to have “long con­ver­sa­tions” or if they had had “a big night the night be­fore”.

Sharon Ste­vula, who now works as a su­per­vi­sor at Mar­land Mush­rooms’ Sta­ply­ton plant, said when she was pick­ing at Hin­ter­land Mush­rooms on the Sun­shine Coast she har­vested about 1200kg of mush­rooms a week – and re­called she picked close to 1500kg dur­ing her best week.

Fair Work Om­buds­man bar­ris­ter Justin Bourke sug­gested the fig­ures were ex­ag­ger­ated, which she de­nied.

Piece rates pay work­ers on the ba­sis of how many ki­los they pick per hour, which is com­mon prac­tice in hor­ti­cul­ture.

Mar­land Mush­rooms has been ac­cused of un­der­pay­ing more than 400 work­ers $646,000 in 2014.

The work­ers were em­ployed through con­trac­tor HRS Coun­try on a piece rate ba­sis.

HRS Coun­try owner Tao Hu ad­mit­ted dur­ing a trial in the Fed­eral Court in Bris­bane she knew work­ers were be­ing un­der­paid.

Mr Bourke has ar­gued pick­ers were re­ceiv­ing be­tween 60 and 80 cents a kilo­gram, which was well short of the 91 cents a kilo they should have been earn­ing.

Dur­ing an eight-month Fair Work Om­buds­man au­dit in 2014, the mean av­er­age of mush­rooms picked per hour was 14 ki­los, which was short of the 29.5 ki­los needed to reach the ap­pro­pri­ate award.

Ms Ste­vula said some work­ers were ca­pa­ble of pick­ing more than oth­ers.

“Some days you have good days, and other days you have bad days,” she said.

Ms Ste­vula was also ques­tioned about the amount of time it took for work­ers to clean up their equip­ment at the end of a shift.

Dur­ing the trial on Tues­day, for­mer Mar­land Mush­rooms picker Jing-Sin Jian, who called her­self Fei while in Aus­tralia, ex­plained through an in­ter­preter that job could take half an hour as there were lim­ited num­bers of taps, and there was of­ten a queue.

But Ms Ste­vula de­nied this was the case.

She said on av­er­age the job took be­tween five and 10 min­utes.

How­ever, Mr Bourke ques­tioned her about her writ­ten af­fi­davit where she stated it was un­usual for the task to take 30 min­utes, and if it did, it would be be­cause she had in­structed the picker to re­wash their equip­ment.

Dur­ing the trial, Judge Dar­ryl Ran­giah also ques­tioned Ms Ste­vula about her pick­ing rate while work­ing at Hin­ter­land Mush­rooms.

She said she was then work­ing five days per week, and mostly worked fewer than 40 hours a week, of­ten knock­ing off at 11am.

Na­tional Farm­ers’ Fed­er­a­tion bar­ris­ter Richard Dal­ton spoke for the first time as an in­ter­venor on the trial.

Mr Dal­ton de­scribed Fair Work’s case as be­ing “fun­da­men­tally flawed” and said it should be con­sid­ered in­ad­mis­si­ble.

The trial has been ad­journed un­til October 25.

PHOTO: FILE

FED­ERAL COURT: Mar­land Mush­rooms’ grow­ing fa­cil­ity at Stapyl­ton.

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