Jessica Zaccaria says it is “nearly impossible” to earn a decent wage picking berries at Costa, a huge supplier to Australia’s biggest supermarkets. In five weeks of picking raspberries in Corindi, north of Coffs Harbour, the Italian backpacker’s wage averaged just $14.19 an hour, her payslips show.
Ms Zaccaria was paid “piece rate”, which means the more you pick the more you earn. Sometimes she worked 11 days in a row doing tough physical work while some supervisors treated workers poorly.
It comes after a Fairfax Media investigation, published on Thursday, highlighted that exploitation of temporary foreign workers across the Australian economy was now systemic, with many jobs fetching just $10 to $13 an hour, well below the minimum wage.
The comprehensive study of 1071 job advertisements in Mandarin aimed at temporary foreign workers, showed 80 per cent pay below either the minimum wage or award, suggesting many hundreds of thousands of people are being illegally underpaid at any one time, and that some industries now rely heavily on underpaid foreign workers.
Ms Zaccaria, who had a 417 “working holiday” visa, gave evidence on Thursday in the Fair Work Commission as part of an ongoing legal case by the National Union of Workers that a workplace agreement between Costa and its workers leaves them worse off than the award – the basic wages and conditions safety net.
The battle at Costa – the family company of prominent businessman and ex-Geelong Football Club president Frank Costa – is part of a bigger push by the union to organise the food supply chain of supermarkets Coles and Woolworths.
Many of the workers at Costa in Corindi are foreign, Ms Zaccaria says. Her co-workers came from around the world including India, the Philippines and Taiwan.
But a Costa human resources executive, Carl Phillips, rejected the NUW’s claim that the deal with workers left those earning piece rates worse off. He told the Fair Work Commission that an average, competent worker would be able to earn 15 per cent more than those on hourly wages – which is the legal minimum requirement under the award for piece work.
Ms Zaccaria said the work was hard and taxing since she started there in June. Although she was not the best picker it was hard to earn a decent wage.
Each day Costa adjusts the piece rate and Ms Zaccaria said her income varied greatly depending on the daily rate set by her employer and weather conditions.
There is little certainty around work either, with pickers finding out about shifts often with less than two hours’ notice.
A National Issue
The scandal at 7-Eleven also put a mirror up to customers, with some boycotting the stores after watching ABC’s Four Corners, The Price of Convenience.
In the program one 7-Eleven worker said: “A barista-style coffee sells for $1. The people who are paying the real price are those international students. They’re working like slaves in your stores, for $10. They have a tagline and it’s called ‘Good call’. That’s what they call it. And I thought it’s not a good call at all.”
Since then there have been a flood of emails about nail parlours paying cheap wages, some other franchise operations, petrol station outlets, restaurants and trolley contractors used at big retailers.
It is a big issue given one in 10 workers in Australia are on a visa and many of them are vulnerable and being exploited. This, together with a focus on the bottom line and gaps in the law, has resulted in some companies doing the wrong thing thinking that hiring contractors will provide plausible deniability.