Farm workers experience featured in campaign to Change The Rules

Farm workers experience featured in campaign to Change The Rules

Anh Nguyen and Mahani Tif. From cash contractors and casual work to secure jobs and a union agreement

Anh Nguyen and Mahani Tif. From cash contractors and casual work to secure jobs and a union agreement

Working on the farm before workers became union was tough. 90% of the workforce was employed casually by labour hire contractors. This meant 90% of workers were getting paid between $10 and $12.50 per hour cash-in-hand. The contractor wasn’t paying superannuation, tax, public holiday rates, but the really hard thing was having no job security. There was no process to ask for a direct, permanent job.

Mahani: I felt at any time the contractor could sack me.

Anh: There was no way you could ask for a pay rise. There was no respect, we could not speak up to raise problems to management.

The boss seemed like the one with all the power and workers didn’t know about the union.

Mahani: I didn’t think anything would ever change. We felt like we had no power.

At first, because most workers didn’t know about their right to join the union and organise with their workmates, people didn’t believe joining the union could change the industry. The company used different tactics to destroy people’s hope.

Anh: They tried to divide the workers in the shed and the workers in the field. Contractors and the boss tried to scare people from joining the union and they tried to stop the union from meeting with some of the workers.

Mahani: At first I felt scared to admit I was a union member and I set up my union dues by direct debit so the company wouldn’t know.

People started to understand that the union was about all workers sticking together and there was excitement about the idea of collectively bargaining for a union agreement.

Anh: We had to prove that a majority of workers wanted to bargain, so we got all the workers to sign on to say that they supported bargaining. But the company disputed our majority support. Union organisers had to meet with the company’s lawyers to prove we wanted change. It took two months just to prove it.

Bargaining was difficult and after seven months of trying to negotiate some basic rights and a pay increase, workers felt like nothing was going to change.

Anh: It was really frustrating, going around in circles. We weren’t asking for anything excessive and they’d been doing the wrong thing for so long. Workers decided to take a stand and we held a protected action ballot to take strike action. We won that with a big majority. After that, the company started bargaining in a more meaningful way.

Through joining the union, taking collective action and bargaining their first union agreement, workers were able to change their lives with some significant wins: 

  • An end to illegal cash payments and all workers directly employed by the company on the minimum wage, which provided a $9 wage increase
  • Conversion rights for casual workers, which led to 40-50 new fulltime jobs
  • Full union rights for workers, and
  • $1.30 per hour wage increase from the minimum wage in the first year and 3% for the next three years.

Mahani: A big thing for all workers was to have more rights and more respect.

Going through this process showed workers they did have rights if they were ready to stand up together in their union and demand them.

Anh: Today in Australia there are no rights for casual workers. Outside of EBA’s, there is no right to get a permanent job and labour hire contractors break laws regularly. Penalty rates are under attack, but already casual and cash workers on farms do not receive any penalty rates. Even after 12 hours in one day.

Contractors and employers exploit migrant workers in Australia’s food supply chain, threatening termination of employment or even deportation to scare people. This needs to change.

Mahani: Currently, many workers in Australia feel they can’t speak up, believe they can’t raise problems because if they do they’ll be intimidated or lose their job.

Anh: Health and safety protections for workers in Australia are very good in theory. But in reality, many workplaces are unsafe, workers are scared to say anything and companies don’t want to spend any money.”

The rules for workers in Australia are broken.

But for Anh, Mahani and their workmates, the biggest lesson was, there is power (for change) in our union. To find out more about about the campaign to Change The Rules click here.

 

Farm Workers, Change The Rules, NUW