By Growcom CEO Rachel Chambers

In Australia there are basically two ways you can employ someone, either through a modern award or an Enterprise Agreement (EA).  

122 different modern awards exist as an attempt to cover most employees across most industries, whilst EA’s are used when employees or employers are seeking greater flexibility than these set award conditions.  

Horticulture has been a strong user of EA’s and it’s easy to understand why when you consider the nature of the industry.  

  • 104 different commodities (just across QLD) each with their own unique growing needs in various geographic areas adds a level of complexity when trying to fit into a ‘one size fits all’ award. 
  • Fruit, vegetables, and nuts are fresh and perishable products which show little to no regard for our modern award 38-hour Monday to Friday 9-5pm work week. 
  • Labour requirements in horticulture are inconsistent due to seasonal need.

For many years employers needing to get their produce to market and employees seeking flexibility in their working arrangements have AGREED on terms which they are both happy with. These negotiated agreements seek to deliver practical and sensible outcomes for both. 

But practical and sensible seems to not be the intent of December’s Secure Jobs, Better Pay legislation. The legislation states that all agreements made prior to the introduction of the Fair Work Act 2009 including the bridging period between 1 July 2009 and 31 December 2009 (coined ‘zombie agreements’) will end on 7 December 2023 unless an application for extension is made to the commission. Applications need to meet certain conditions, for example, that bargaining is occurring for a proposed replacement agreement or employees would be better off under the zombie agreement. 

It is this idea of ‘better off’ that we are exploring. Who decides what better off means? In this day and age does it only mean money, or does it also mean lifestyle? Traditionally EA’s have been able to deliver both.  

Casual employees in horticulture have historically made hay while the sun shines, working longer hours during harvest seasons before taking an extended break. It’s a way of life for a large cohort of people across the nation. These latest changes to the Award have limited worker’s freedom of choice and workers are getting cranky about it. 

Only last week a directions hearing took place at the Fair Work Commission to hear an employee’s plea to vary the Horticulture Award to remove overtime for casuals.  

It will be interesting to see if the commission ‘agrees’ with the employees’ definition of better off and whose arguments and evidence they take into their decision making. We will be watching…