Niko Karhu laughed when he got his paycheque for $31.24 after spending five hours picking tomatoes on a Bundaberg farm last May.
The Finnish backpacker says he spent five hours hunting for fruit that was almost as meagre as his pay.
“It was more like, like just walking, wondering where they are and picking a tomato every, you know, two or three metres,” he says.
At the end of the day, Karhu, who is now training to be a diving instructor, was paid based on the – small – amount of fruit he had been able to pick.
Paying by piece is allowed by the Horticulture Award, which governs fruit and vegetable picking.
Unlike most awards, it does not specify a minimum hourly wage that workers must receive – something unions are trying to change.
Last week, the Fair Work Commission heard arguments in a case brought by the Australian Workers Union, and supported by the United Workers Union, to change the award so that pickers have to receive at least the Australian minimum wage, $20.33 an hour, for what is hard, physical work that often takes place under beating sun or pouring rain.
Launching the case in December, the AWU national secretary, Dan Walton, told Guardian Australia that the industry had “become the centrepiece for exploitation in this country”, with employers paying as little as $3 an hour for labour.
But employers oppose the increase – one group, the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance, has told the commission that a lack of minimum rates “means that novice employees are incentivised to learn the job and achieve competence as quickly as reasonably possible and more experienced employees are incentivised to maximise their productivity”.
This was not Karhu’s experience. At the end of the day when he was presented with his pay he “absolutely burst into laughter”, he says.
“I knew that going to Bundaberg was a risk,” he says. “I’ve never heard anything good about that town work-wise. But I was desperate.”
Karhu, who is a UWU member, needed to work 88 days on a farm in order to stay in Australia on a working holiday visa.
A few days later, he again worked for piece rates, this time at a chilli farm. This time, the problem was not lack of fruit – it was the low piece rates. Experienced pickers did not fare any better, he says.
“I remember that we were moving at pretty much the same pace, all of us,” he says.
“Obviously it was my first – and last – day but a few of the people there, they’d been there before, and I wasn’t that far behind.”
His pay that day was $32.40.
Experienced picker Mahani Mohd Tif, who is also a UWU member, worked a seven-and-a-half-hour day picking strawberries, for which she received just $34.10.
At other jobs, she got more – provided there was actually fruit to pick.
“The first day you can get more fruit, the second day you can get less,” she says.
“Sometimes I got about $50, so about $300 a week.”
The uncertainty made it hard to buy food and pay rent.
“It was very difficult to plan,” she says.
“I prefer to be paid hourly … if you work eight hours, you know how much you get – it doesn’t depend on whether you are stronger or not.”
Karhu agrees hourly is better. After getting next to nothing picking strawberries and chillies on piece rates, he moved on to a family-owned farm which paid him by the hour to pick and pack crops including onions and beetroots.
“It was a small family farm, that was decent, it was pretty good.
“It was hourly paid so it was no worries.”
At the commission, the UWU has countered the farmers’ arguments by saying workers would still have an incentive to pick more fruit if a minimum wage safety net was introduced.
“A productivity incentive based on motivating workers by fear they will earn less than the minimum rate if not ‘productive’ is fundamentally inconsistent with the concept of a fair and minimum safety net,” the UWU said in its submissions.
The UWU’s farm industry director, Jannette Armstrong, says that if the current system was working as designed, workers on piece rates would already be earning 15% more than the minimum wage.
“Putting in a minimum wage floor will have no adverse impact on those growers doing the right thing and will in fact help them by eliminating unfair competition based on artificially low labour costs,” she says.
“We can’t continue to accept arguments from some growers or labour hire contractors that the only way they can run their business is if they are allowed to continue paying workers less than the Australian minimum wage.”
But the unions face stiff opposition from industry. The National Farmers Federation says a minimum wage would “render the industry less productive” and pile more pressure on farmers who are already under pressure from supermarkets wanting cheap produce.
And employer body AI Group argues that backpackers like Karhu just don’t need to be paid that much.
“The seasonal workforce commonly consists of backpackers and ‘grey nomads’,” it said in its submissions.
“For such workers, participation in the horticulture industry is with a view to supporting a holiday rather than supporting themselves generally.
“For such employees, needing to exhibit the level of competence as to justify the minimum hourly rate would act as a significant disincentive to employment.”
Looking out over the bow of the dive boat at “10 to 12 sharks”, Karhu has some blunt advice for backpackers thinking about working on a farm so they can extend their visa: “Just try to find an hourly paid job.”
Piece rate jobs are rarely worth it, he says.
“If you have friends somewhere where they’re doing things right and you can get actual confirmation and prove that they are making, you know, $250 or $300 a day, go for it.
“But they are rare. Oh boy, are they rare.”