The Australian Workers’ Union is applying to the Fair Work Commission to ensure horticulture workers are paid a minimum $24.80 an hour.
Farms do not currently have to pay the minimum award rate, with many workers paid depending on the amount of fruit picked or vegetables harvested.
The AWU is comfortable with farm owners being able to keep piecework arrangements in place, but wants the award rate set as a floor.
AWU national secretary Dan Walton said worker exploitation and abuse was rife on Australian farms.
“There is no reason we have to accept this shameful reality,” he said on Wednesday.
“Australia was founded on the principle that if you do a fair day’s work you should be guaranteed a fair day’s pay.”
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the devil would be in the detail of the union’s proposal, but argued it would be disingenuous to assume all farmers did not pay their workers enough.
“They are generalising the fact that there is a minority that have cut corners and have done the wrong thing,” he told Sky News.
“They should be weeded out, they are a cancer in agriculture that need to be weeded out, but that’s not unlike any other industry.”
The AWU is also pushing for a royal commission into horticulture after the release of a report alleging shocking exploitation on blueberry farms in NSW.
Natalie Trigwell lost her home near the NSW town of Nimbin in the bushfires and was living in her campervan when she landed a job picking berries.
But she was paid just $15 a day for her backbreaking work.
“I was working six to eight hours a day in the heat and getting a ridiculously low wage that you couldn’t live on,” she said.
“There are decent farmers out there who are doing the right thing but we need to root out the bad guys and make sure every fruit and veg picker is paid a fair wage.”
Littleproud said it was human nature for bosses to try and cut corners.
“But to generalise the way the AWU is effectively saying that Australian farmers are exploiting their employees – each and every one of them – and that is not the case,” he said.
The agriculture minister has claimed a large cohort of unemployed people are preferring to sit on the couch over taking up farm labouring jobs.
Walton believes guaranteeing minimum pay will help drive down youth unemployment in regional Australia.
“The reason farmers are finding it hard to attract workers to fruit picking currently is because people don’t want to be ripped off and exploited,” he said.
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