Last week, the National Union of Workers (NUW) officially declared war on the horticulture industry.
After almost two years on the slow burn, constant media ‘exposes’ designed to pressure the government and its agencies to intervene, the National Farmers’ Federation was warned. “It’s going to get ugly, unless you give us what we want”.
Asked what that was, the answer eventually came through. Demanding that the NFF come to the union office in another State, at a specified time, on a specified date. To discuss the right of farm workers to be represented by the NUW, the NUW’s role in labour supply issues, and the role of various stakeholders.
This might not seem outrageous, except that the NUW doesn’t have the right to represent farm workers. It may have some coverage of workers in packing sheds, but that’s it. The Australian Workers’ Union is the union that represents the agricultural workforce. It’s their turf and it’s under attack.
Technical details like this don’t seem to phase the NUW. The burden of legal compliance only seems to matter when it’s a demand on others. Otherwise, the union is just another business, seeking to take advantage of their position in the market, but unlike most other businesses, wielding the extraordinary power they have under the Fair Work Act 2009. They know their advantage, and they have the smarts to wield it - on the farm, in migrant villages overseas, on social media and on TV.
The NUW Fair Food Campaign, targeting Coles and Woolworths, seeks “Fair Food Agreements” with major supermarkets who sell a significant proportion of fresh produce. Under these agreements, the NUW would set the wages and conditions paid by farmers who supply supermarkets, and supermarkets would adopt a preferred supplier list of “Fair Food Farmers” who have agreements with the NUW, employ workers directly or only use union approved contractors.
If this sounds familiar, it is. It’s what happened to the construction industry when large companies agreed to set ‘site rates’ in return for industrial peace. Union agreements shut out tradies and smaller suppliers from the market, unless they agreed to pay up. It gave construction unions enormous power, and it’s why we now have the ABCC.
Farmers don’t have the resources of the construction industry and they operate under genuine and unique pressures – with the combined volatility of seasons, global commodity markets and domestic misuse of market power. They can’t just put their prices up. For the most part, they get what they get – sometimes in the form of only one cheque for the year.
Labour costs in Australia are some of the highest in the world, which means that farmers compete in international markets against competitors who have much lower running costs. They do this by preserving and promoting their clean, green, image. But there is a ceiling on market appetite – even the best fruit won’t sell at any price.
If the NUW has its way, supermarkets will agree to drive up farm labour costs even higher. Let’s not kid ourselves that the supermarkets will wear that cost. Instead, more and more pressure will come down upon the farmer who sits at the very beginning of the supply chain. For many, it will eat up too much of their profits and they will simply walk away.
The debate around workplace relations reform has stalled in this country because it’s a hard sell. It means staring down powerful unions.Fiona Simson, NFF, President
Being able to match millions spent on slick advertising campaigns designed to convince the community how much we stand to lose. Yet the irony is that without workplace reform, we are all losers, standing by as our cost of living goes up, credit ratings come down and our ability to compete in export markets fades.
It’s time to get serious about workplace reform. Right of entry rules need to change, and workplace bargaining needs to be actually worth it. At the end of the day, the Fair Work Act and the organisations that it empowers need to uphold the value of fairness for all – not just for some. Australian farmers depend on it.
Fiona Simson is the President of the National Farmers’ Federation.
This editorial first appeared in farmonline on 24 February 2017.