‘Things could get a lot harder for people like me and my workmates’: Kay Rault outside the Fair Work Commission in Sydney Photo: Christopher PearceAustralia’s biggest potato grower is leadinga national push to pay employees like Kay Raultwhoworkin packing and storage shedslocated off farm sitesthe same rates as lower-paid farm workers.

In Sydney to give evidence to theFair Work Commission hearing of MitoloGroup’s applicationto have the Horticulture Awardextendedto store workers who handle fresh produce, Ms Raultwho grades potatoes and onions at Mitolo’sSouth Australian facility said it was hard to make ends meet onher wages.

“If this change gets through, things could get a lot harder for people like me and my workmates,” she said.

“Why should big companies be able to change the law just because it suits them?”

MsRault’s employer, MitoloGroup, a major supermarket supplier, is amongcompanies backed by the Australian Industry Group which is putting their case to the Fair Work Commission.

As a member of the National Union of Workers which opposesthe industry push to extend the Horticulture Award to include workersin packing and storage sheds located away fromfarms,MsRaultsaid:”Just becauseMitoloowns farms, doesn’t mean thatMitoloonly employs farm workers”.

Potatoes. Photo: Wolter Peeters

The NUWsays theStorage Services Award, which pays higher rates than the Horticulture Award, should applyto workers in storage facilities locatedoutside the farm gate.

The Australian Industry Group says imposition of the Storage Services Award for off-site packing and storage workers”would impose crippling cost increases” on businesses in the horticulture industry.

“The fact that the NUW may be able to identify a couple of businesses that have decided to apply the award in response to NUW claims, does not alter the fact that the Horticulture Award is the one that is applied very widely throughout the Horticulture Industry,” the AIG says.

The AIGarguesthat activities outside the “farm gate” do not literally refer to a physical location or “gate”. It saysthe termrelatesto workcarried out by the producer up to the first point of sale from the producer to its customers.

“The concept has no relevance to the location of work,” it says.

NUWsecretary Tim Kennedy said the Mitolo application to extend the Horticulture Award to workers outside the farm gate could see up to 8 per cent cut frompay packets andthe loss of other entitlements.

“Store workers handling fresh produce would continue to do the same work, every day of the week, except they would be paid less. It’s just wage theft. A worker on level 1 could lose more than $60 a week,” he said.

“Under the Horticulture Award, employers currently do not pay casual workers anything extra for overtime or weekend work. So while the union movement is campaigning hard to protect penalty rates for workers across Australia, these big employers are quietly trying to take away penalty rates from potentially thousands of casual store workers.

“Under the Horticulture Award, employers regularly require workers to work for piece rates. This means people being paid for each piece of fruit they pick. Often piece rate workers cannot even earn the legal minimum wage in this country. This problem needs to be fixed, not expanded.”

Mitolo declined to comment until the Fair Work Commission has decided the matter.