In a big change, the Fair Work Commission has issued a ruling to say farm workers and seasonal pickers paid on a piece rate must be guaranteed a minimum wage under the Horticulture Award.
The Australian Workers' Union has celebrated the draft ruling as a major move to protect workers from exploitation.
However, the State's peak fruit growers body feared it would be counterproductive and was concerned about the impact on small growers in particular.
Fruit Growers Tasmania chief executive Peter Cornish said a process was still underway to seek responses to the FWC's draft determination, which could go to a hearing in December.
"Nonetheless, it's pretty clear from the determination where Fair Work has landed on this, which is very much in line with the union application for the award variation, and we're disappointed with this outcome," Mr Cornish said.
"We don't believe compelling evidence was put forward as to why there needs to be this change, not in the least because we see this as a very effective way of engaging labour, particularly for small growers.
"One of the most disappointing aspects of this determination so far is the belief this will lead to increased productivity. We're very much of the view this is going to decrease productivity. The main reason being the nature of the system itself was pretty much self-regulating."
A piece rate is paid according to the amount of produce picked. The more you pick the more you get paid.
However, the AWU lodged its claim with the commission arguing workers should be guaranteed a minimum casual rate.
In its draft finding announced on November 3, the FWC's full bench "expressed the view that the existing pieceworker provisions in the Horticulture Award are not fit for purpose." "They do not provide a fair and relevant minimum safety net as required by the Act," it said. "The Full Bench was satisfied that the insertion of a minimum wage floor with consequential time recording provisions in the piecework clause is necessary to ensure that the Horticulture Award achieves the modern awards objective."
AWU national secretary Dan Walton said it was a significant decision.
"Fruit pickers in Australia have been routinely and systemically exploited and underpaid," he said.
"Too many farmers have been able to manipulate the piece rate system to establish pay and conditions far beneath Australian standards. Now, it will be easy for workers - even if they don't have good English language skills or Australian connections - to understand if they're being ripped off. From now on, if you're making less than $25 an hour fruit picking in Australia, your boss is breaking the law and stealing from you."
The National Farmers' Federation had opposed the changes, arguing it could drive farmers out of business.
Mr Cornish said the piece rate system was not perfect but was based on the more workers picked, the more you got paid and this change could disincentivise growers to do piece rates at the top end, which is what attracts many people to this work.
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"Unfortunately, we think this will have very significant effects and changes for our industry and our growers and particularly small growers but not just small growers. It will lead to higher costs and will probably lead to higher prices for the consumer as well," Mr Cornish said.
"One of the biggest concerns is for the smaller growers; this was a very efficient system that worked both ways.
It allowed people to earn good money if they were more productive, but it also naturally adjusted if they were less productive.- Peter Cornish
"Now that natural system at the bottom end has gone, and that's going to mean onerous and expensive supervision and management of large amounts of casual people spread out in orchards and fields, which is not anywhere as easy as it might seem. So there will be significant implications for some people, and we will see more mechanisation probably.
"I think it's counterproductive to the system that worked well. By all means, fix the compliance issues, but that applies anywhere.
The beauty of the piece-rate system incentivised people to earn more if they were productive.
He said this change did not necessarily mean having the higher-end flexibility to encourage more productive people; the complexities and administrative requirements of this may mean it would be a lot easier for growers to pay a flat hourly rate.
A whole cohort of people is happy to pick at a lower rate and get renumerated accordingly. Because of this decision, those people will get denied, excluding labour from participating in the harvest.
Like any system, some improvements could get made, and some people don't follow the award system, but we're very fortunate in Tassie that we have a very high level of compliance.
From our growers, who are a lot of family growers, they take this very seriously and the way they treat and look after their people.
We have not had issues raised about non-compliance, and we have a lot of returning workers who vote with their feet about this.
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