Piecework is often avoided by Working Holidaymakers, but for those that put in the effort to learn, persevere and work hard, the rewards can be far better than being paid by the hour.

Why choose piecework?

If you are going to work, you may as well get the maximum benefit from the time you spend in the workplace.  It doesn’t matter if you are a backpacker ticking off the 88 days needed to earn a second year, a student on holidays, or a regular Aussie worker earning your daily living, piecework offers the opportunity to earn more for your efforts.

Once you have a little experience, with a bit of intelligence and hard work your earnings can be substantially higher under piecework payments than the minimum hourly wage.  And of course if you are prepared to ‘have a go’, the number of vacancies available to you will be far greater than someone who simply looks for the easy jobs that are likely to have the most competition.  Many backpackers reluctantly go home after one year because they declined piecework jobs and then could not find enough hourly-paid jobs to gain their 88 days before their time expired.

But what is piecework, and how does it work?  The more you know, the more opportunity you have to take advantage of this system of payment.

The ‘award’ system

Most paid work in Australia is regulated by documents known as ‘awards’.  In layman’s terms these are the laws that protect and control the wages and conditions under which employees are contracted by their employer.  A Government agency, the Fair Work Ombudsman, has the task of looking after the rights of workers and to ensure that employers follow the laws that relate to their employees.

Most common occupations in Australia have minimum hourly wage rates under their ‘award’ set by the Fair Work Commission, as well as conditions that relate to that job.  One of the functions of the Commission is to set wage rates, which generally increase on 1 July each year.  These rates can be found on the FWO website.

The award that is most relevant to workers in the fruit and vegetable industry is the Horticulture Award, but others may also come into play such as the Wine Industry Award which covers some grape picking.  Although pay rates and conditions are likely to be similar, there will be differences.  Employers should know which ‘award’ relates to the work they are offering, but to ensure they are being paid correctly workers should also be aware.

What is ‘piecework’?

Under some ‘awards’ such as the Horticulture Award, the right to offer ‘piece rates’ is defined.  This allows an employer to pay their workers by the quantity of work they perform rather than for each hour.  Where a person works as an individual in a job that can be easily measured, such as picking fruit into a container, piecework is the most common means of paying workers.  The container will vary for different commodities.  Soft, easily damaged fruits may be picked into small buckets or tubs holding only a couple of kilograms, whereas larger, more robust fruit may go into plastic or wooden bins holding several hundred kilos.  So the worker will be offered a piecerate defined as $X per X-container.

It is important to note that the speed at which an employee can work must not be constrained by other workers.  This means that a piecework job must be done by an individual and not by a team because in a group situation where workers do the job together, the speed of one person is likely to be limited by the speed of others in the team.  Even if the workers are happy to work together, often the case with couples, it is not legal to offer piecerates in this situation.  Each individual must have control over the speed at which they work.

Setting the value of piece-rates

The level of reward for each container is different for each type of fruit as the speed at which they are picked is quite different, as well as the size of the container into which they are picked.  Also, the conditions under which picking takes place can vary, even for the same fruit.  A heavy crop of large fruit is likely to be easier and quicker to harvest, so fewer dollars per container will be offered for this work compared to smaller fruit of the same type under difficult picking conditions.

There are many variables that may affect the rate offered such as the height of trees from which the fruit is picked, whether the trees are pruned or bushy, or have thorns to avoid.  Picking from a steep, wet hillside is likely to be harder and therefore slower than from firm, flat ground, so the rate should be more generous, even for the same fruit.  Weather conditions, damage to the fruit, or even how many thick weeds are between rows making movement awkward, can affect the piecerate.  Sometimes equipment such as a hydraulic platform is provided by the farm to help, so if that makes the work quicker, the rate will be less.

Despite all these variables there are rules that determine the minimum level at which piecerates can be offered.  For example, under the Horticulture Award the piecerate must allow an average competent worker the opportunity to earn 15% above the hourly rate that would otherwise apply.

It is important to note that Clause 16.9 makes clear there is no guaranteed minimum rate that must be paid – it is entirely reliant on the speed of the individual worker at the time.

Obligations of the employer

To make sure there are no misunderstandings, and the rate that is offered is clear to any workers under a piecework regime, a signed document must be provided to a worker before they start any piecework job.  This is a Piecework Agreement.

The Agreement is not a government form, it is simply a written document that makes the details clear.  It is usually a single page that identifies who the employer is – either the farm or a labour hire contractor – the container that the fruit is measured by, and the dollar rate per container. 

The Piecework Agreement must be signed by both the employer and the worker, and a copy provided to each.  If the rate changes during the job so that it is different to the original Agreement, a new Agreement must be signed and provided before work at the new rate continues.

Protect yourself – picking by numbers

Each method of picking will have a means of counting the containers into which the fruit is picked.  This may be a simple paper tag with a name or number written on it to identify who picked into that container.  Higher levels of technology apply on some farms where barcodes or chips and used in conjunction with scanners.

Sometimes honest errors take place between the field and the packing shed, or fellow employees or their supervisors find ways to ‘steal’ from their co-workers by changing names or data.  It is recommended that all workers take their own records, either with a simple pen and notebook, or use their phone to keep track.  This can help protect pieceworkers from being cheated and resolve misunderstandings amicably.

News headlines – workers only paid $12.00 an hour!

Remembering that there is no minimum pay rate under piecework conditions, it should be obvious that a slow worker may earn very little in an hour.  This is a common situation when workers start a new job – while they are learning they will be slow until they work out the best way to do the job and their muscles gain the fitness and stamina needed for that task.

When the media splashes headlines about very low ‘hourly wages’, the stories often neglect to mention the earnings described are under piecework.  If a worker is socialising instead of working, spending time on their phone, or simply being lazy, their earnings will reflect that.  Employers sometimes relate stories of workers sitting under trees smoking, chatting, or being otherwise unproductive, then complaining of their meagre earnings.

So long as the rules under the ‘award’ are being followed by the employer, the worker has ultimate control of their earnings and has the opportunity to earn well above the hourly rate.  Employees who understand that they will start slowly, possibly earning little initially, but with perseverance and effort increase their speed, are usually rewarded.  And not only earning good wages, but also a positive reference from a satisfied employer, which is likely to help gain the next job quickly.

So don’t be too fussy when jobs are offered – piecework can be your best friend!