Farmers are being reminded their casual, part time and full time farm workers were due a payrise from 1 July this year, under Fair Work Australia rules governing on-farm employment conditions.
Employment law expert Jane Blackburn, of Maddens Lawyers, explained that a mandatory payrise for farm employees was part of the Pastoral Award 2010, a Federal Award covering all farm employees. The Award automatically updates pay rates on 1 July every year, with pay determined by employee’s experience, qualifications and responsibilities.
“The saying is that nothing in life is certain, bar death and taxes… and you can add to that an increase in award pay rates,” Ms Blackburn said. “But it’s not something farmers can be flippant about. The scope of the Award is broad, the classifications it outlines are complex, the requirement to comply is absolute and the impact of not complying can be very expensive.”
Ms Blackburn explained the annual wage increase was set by the Fair Work Commission, and applied to a huge range of employees and farming enterprises. “Workers on a dairy farm. A piggery. Cattle or sheep. A cropping enterprise. Even beekeeping. It’s diverse and wide-reaching.
“Adding to this is that the classifications that determine what a worker is paid can also be quite prescriptive; they address an employee’s experience and qualification, but also what they do on the farm, if they provide any of their own equipment; even whether they have their own horse, or dog.
“The rates are based on a 38-hour-week average – and mandate that any hours over this must be paid as overtime. Part time or casual workers must be paid for shifts of at least three hours, even if they only work one or two and casuals must be paid loading.
“These are the areas where we continually see farmers caught out. And almost every time, the farmers think they are managing it by-the-book. It’s an indication of how complex the award is, rather than a reflection on how diligent local farmers are.”
Ms Blackburn said the onus on knowing and paying the correct wage rate always fell on the employer. And if classifications and pay rates weren’t up to date, any shortfall had to be met via back-payments, even if underpayment was unintentional.
“Farmers need to be careful they are complying at all times… because a lump sum back-payment is a harsh reality, and can’t be avoided. It doesn’t even matter if underpayment was accidental, or inadvertent. If the matter is taken to court, penalties can also be imposed on top of any back-payments.”
Having worked with many farmers over the past six years to ensure they were compliant and across the complex requirements of the Award, Ms Blackburn urged operators to consult with an experienced advisor to ensure they had their staff payments in-hand.
“Employers must be up to date on the current classification of their employees, and keep in mind this classification can change at any time, due to the employee’s past experience, or tenure in the industry. Even if the employee is still doing exactly the same as what they were doing the day or the week before; it’s not that the Award moves the goalposts. It’s that there is a lot of them, and it can be hard to know which ones to look for.
“Getting another perspective can be the difference between compliance – and peace of mind – and non-compliance, backpayments and a hefty fine.”