Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Award wage rates are no benchmark

Recent stories

If you are wondering why there is a labour shortage across the Western Australia wheatbelt then check out some of the jobs on offer across the state and what they are paying:

  • State Farming Award $25.89
  • National Award $26.70
  • Grain harvest worker advertised $29.00 
  • Country bar work advertised $29.50
  • Bunnings Perth $29.99
  • Cricket car parking coordinator, Venues West $35.60  
  • Wheatbelt bin tarpers $37.00 
  • Swimming pool deck supervisor $37.27
  • Trainee dump truck operator (Indigenous Identified) 2:1 roster $49.00  
  • Road train loader Perth $55.00
  • Esperance MC driver mining  $59.86  
  • HD mechanic Port Hedland 2:1 roster $68.00
  • Pilbara skilled excavator, grader, dump truck positions 2:1 Roster $60 – $80 hr 
  • Goldfields entry level driller offsider (assistant) $110k – $130k + bonuses + super
  • Pilbara dump truck operator no experience req 2: 1 roster $161k + super

When I see farm jobs advertised offering the WA State Award (sole traders) or Federal Award rate (companies) I wonder what sort of people they are hoping to attract.

We know the backpackers are coming back in droves, but the labor market is still incredibly tight and working holiday makers know what the market is paying.

Don’t think they can’t work out that working the summer at the Byron Bay or Yallingup pub at $28 hr might be more rewarding than working harvest at Beacon or Yealering on the Award rate.

I’m going to try to make the case that we need to lift what we pay but also ensure we offer a safe interesting experience so we can grow the pool of working holiday markets that will consider working on grains farms.  

Let me start by telling the story of a recent encounter with a couple of commercial pilots who recounted their experience working on WA farms driving chaser bins during the 2020 and 21 harvest, when Covid had grounded them.

Unfortunately they were not all that impressed by our industry, pointing out a long list of faults,  starting with non existent or second rate safety systems, unclear daily directions, undefined hours, grumpy intolerant bosses, not to mention pay rates (for them last year) of $28 an hour to drive expensive machinery.

These pilots were not precious wowsers, all three of them had come up through the ranks flying light aircraft for small charter firms working out of the North West. They had done their time sleeping in swags and dongas and doing long hours working for struggling small businesses.

While we pride ourselves on not being the horticultural industry – which has a bad rap for labour exploitation – it’s disappointing to hear that some farmers are out of step with community expectations when it comes to employment, which is no doubt contributing to our failure to attract and hold staff. 

Unfortunately, as with flying on Qantas or Jetstar, we all judge the airline on our last flight, how late the plane was, the quality of the food, the attitude of the hostees and did they lose your baggage. We as the farming industry are also judged collectively by backpackers and the word spreads fast.

Just as Alan Joyce is under the pump to lift his game, if we want to attract and hold staff then we need to be aware that workers talk, they know who’s paying what and what else is on offer down the road. 

It took me just 10 minutes to jump around the various employment web sites (Seek, Gum Tree, FaceBook, Jora etc) to benchmark what’s on offer in the form of casual jobs. And believe me there is a lot.

I suspect the corporate farm currently offering $56,000 for full time farm workers and $69,000 for a truck driver will struggle against the $161,000 for a 2:1 roster on a mine or $110,000 for an entry level drillers assistant.

I won’t comment on the Indigenous Identified other than to wonder why they are not also offering it to those who identify as female, either way I think I’m eligible.

Pre Covid we were getting 40,000 UK, 25,000 German, 20,000 French, 10,000 Italian, Irish and Canadian plus another 100,000 across Asia eligible for working holiday visas, all of whom were targeted by farmers to do seasonal work.

Only 20 per cent will make it to Western Australia. Many of the workers that don’t have good English language skills or are intimidated by big machinery or big paddocks end up working in the horticultural sector, leaving only a small percentage available for the grains industry.

Even when the full number of around 200,000, Working Holiday Visa 417 and Work and Holiday Visa 462 holders come flooding back in, they will be all over social media benchmarking who’s offering the best paying jobs in what sectors (aged and disability care; agriculture, forestry and fishing; construction; mining, tourism and hospitality).

So be it pulling beers at the OBH or making beds at a BHP mine site, the money, job or the location can be the swing factor.

Mine site housekeeping jobs pay $35 to $45 an hour with good accommodation and food, but then cleaning toilets and living with a bunch of miners is not quite the same as driving a big tractor and bonding with a farming family. 

The decision becomes a lot easier if the farm gig is offered at more than the award rate.

To attract workers in a competitive market farmers need to pay a competitive rate and do more than put up a simple ad on facebook. They need to sell the experience of working on their farm, introduce themselves, post photos and videos of the family, the accommodation, the farm dog and the big tractor. Videos work a treat. 

Some farmers are getting very sophisticated in how they market themselves to working holiday makers, New Zealanders etc and as a result they are attracting highly experienced farm workers.

While we all know the mining industry has to pay big bucks to attract and hold workers, life on a mine is no fun; doing night shift for 2 weeks straight or working in 46 degree heat in the Pilbara is hard grind.

They can have the big money as they well and truly earn it. 

But the wage disparity is killing our industry, so we need to get closer to what they are offering and focus on the upside, which is the experience and challenge of working on a farm.

This is not to say that all farms are offering award rates and poor conditions, I’m hearing stories of super-organised farmers offering high quality accommodation for casuals, a live-in housekeeper to cook meals and do washing, locked-in set hours, days off, good gear and good safety systems plus professional management. 

Some are paying up to $50 hr for experienced header drivers and $150,000 for full time supervisors.  They are probably off the top money by 20% but they are no longer far off.

Not surprisingly these farmers don’t suffer from worker shortage.

They have joined the dots that they can’t afford to employ inexperienced staff to drive headers that can’t be replaced or fixed if they are badly bent.  Those who are employing backpackers workers with no farm experience are making a serious effort to do farm safety inductions and provide good training.

Some are outsourcing their induction and training programs to put some rigour into their safety system others tap work2farm to act as a broker to find, train and weed out the useless.  

When the cost of buying a dud tractor or truck without having a mechanic do a pre purchase check can be the difference between a dud and a great buy, the cost of getting a backpacker whose brain is not right to work on a farm can be equally expensive. 

In hindsight I suspect the farmer that employed those airline pilots during Covid did not realise what an asset they were.  You don’t have to be Alan Joyce to understand why Qantas pays top dollar to their airline pilots.  The cost of just one accident is not worth the risk of cheap employees.



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