A MOVE to improve worker conditions in the nation's orchards has seemingly backfired, with the Fruit Growers Victoria industry body reporting slower pickers were being pushed out of the industry.
Changes to the Horticulture Award that came into effect on April 28 meant that workers, typically paid per bin picked, must be guaranteed a minimum hourly rate. For casuals it is $25.41 per hour.
Grower Services Manager Michael Crisera said orchard owners had always tried to pay the minimum award wage as a piece-rate but were now having to select against those who could not go fast enough.
"Before, if people wanted to go slow and just pick two bins a day and get just $100 per day (that was acceptable) but now because it's an hourly rate we have to say: 'we can't afford to keep you'."
The pay change came as a result of a Fair Work Commission ruling, following a successful campaign by the Australian Workers union.
Mr Crisera said rising costs in the past 18 months with no corresponding lift in the amount paid by supermarkets had increased pressure on wages.
"The return to growers is below the cost of production. Everybody is facing rising costs. Diesel has doubled and fertiliser has gone up about 70 per cent to 100 per cent," he said.
Fruit Growers Victoria told the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission that supermarket bargaining practices had put growers at a disadvantage.
"Some supermarket retailers have a tender process on box pricing which pits one supplier against another on whether they get orders for produce or not. If suppliers are in oversupply of a perishable item that they cannot hold then they will continue to supply even though the price is not profitable to their own business."
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Harcourt growers Heather and Garry Pollard stopped selling their apples and pears to supermarkets in 2012, ending a 30-year relationship.
"We sell all our fruit through farmers markets now," Mr Pollard said. "Supermarkets take more than 50 per cent. That's why we started doing farmers markets because supermarkets would not pay enough."
Mr Pollard said four people were employed to pick fruit at his family orchard.
"We only employ locals and they are paid per hour - not piece work - and we have been doing that for many years," he said.
The Pollards sell their produce at Bendigo, Woodend, Lansfield and Riddles Creek.
Woolworths, which made a submission to the inquiry, said it had used programs like The Odd Bunch to support growers.
"The Odd Bunch program accepts fruit and vegetables that may not meet the visual quality expectations of consumers. All existing and new growers are invited to participate and, as The Odd Bunch are a by-product of main harvests farmers achieve an average 30 per cent higher yield from their crop. In FY19 there were more than 25 products in The Odd Brunch program with average sales volumes of 700,000 kilograms."
Coles submitted to the inquiry that it was one of the first supermarket signatories to the Government's voluntary Food and Grocery Code of Conduct in 2015, reflecting its commitment to fair dealing.
The ACC's three-month inquiry into bargaining power imbalances in supply chains for perishable agricultural products in Australia in 2020 identified "a range of harmful practices associated with bargaining power imbalances and market failures" arising from processor-producer and supermarket-supplier relationships.
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