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Record keeping key to minimum wage compliance

Business Management

Victorian orchardist Rien Silverstein is well-placed to know exactly what labour records need to be kept following the introduction on 28 April of the minimum wage for picking. 

Rien runs Silver Orchards in the Goulburn Valley with husband Maurice and son Bo. 

A long-standing and tireless advocate for industry, Rien was one of a small number of growers nationally whose employment records were examined by the Fair Work Commission tribunal as it considered the 2020 application by the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) to introduce a minimum hourly wage. 

“I was working with the NFF, to present the case for piece rate,” Rien said. “So, I was a specimen orchard and their solicitors and barristers interviewed me and I had to present all my paperwork and I had to present the timesheets for certain times of the year.  I had one worker who is Samoan who came with me who speaks English quite well and really helped present the case, because he was able to say, ‘I love piece rate, I’m always paid really well’.” 

Rien was frustrated by the introduction of the minimum wage mid-season and is concerned at the extra record keeping burden and costs on small businesses.  Rien said since the new rules had come in, it was taking her, Maurice and Silver Orchards’ bookkeeper an extra three hours a week to process wages. 

Silver Orchards is a mid-sized business producing around 1500 tonnes of apples and pears a year. Early participants in the Seasonal Worker Programme (now Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Scheme (PALM)), the Silversteins employ one permanent staff member and a returning team of around nine Samoan workers as well as 15 casual workers – 10 of whom are supplied by contractors.  

As Silver Orchard’s chief financial officer, Rien oversees the bookkeeping and said she was comfortable the businesses’s combination of manual time sheets/bin tallies with payroll system Xero would met the new requirements and they have only had to make some small adjustments. 

Rien said while previously if workers were on piece rate, only bin tallies were kept – or hours if on an hourly rate – now both hours and bins will be recorded for all workers on the same manual sheet.  

When it comes to entering into Xero Rien does a quick tally on the back of the time sheet to check if the piece rate paid on the bins will meet the minimum wage plus 15 per cent [required if paying piece rate] and on that basis selects to pay either hourly or piece rate. 

“I work out the hours and I write it on the back, and I’ll go hourly rate, such and such, plus 15 per cent. I just write that down, look at the bin rate, to see if it meets the [minimum wage] criteria.  So, I’m doing that as a check for myself.  

“It’s fairly simple in Xero, you are putting in either the hours they work, and then you can detail what they were doing, or you put in the piece rate, this has to be set up in the programming of the payroll,” Rien said. 

“This way you can put in Packhams at $45/bin, Packhams at $50/bin, Packhams at $55/bin, whatever, as it is adjustable.” 

Like so many other growers, Maurice said the requirement to pay a minimum wage whether workers pick five bins or two or three and the impact that has on cost of production per kilo is a disincentive to keeping less productive workers on. 

“You can never tell looking at a person on the first day if they are going to be a picker,” Maurice said. “So, you have got to be prepared to say, well, it’s going to cost me $1000 a year to $2000 a year just wasted on testing pickers out. You let them go, the first day they don’t make wages, the second they probably don’t and the third day, maybe they do and then you say ‘okay, you’re right to stay picking’. But some maybe on the third day, they are still not getting there, and it just makes you feel bad to have to let them go. It depends how desperate you are, if you are not getting enough bins picked and you need them, they stay on.” 

In Rien and Maurice’s experience, the seasonal workers work hard as they want to return the next year. Silver Orchards also pays bonuses as an incentive for quality, an incentive system introduced in previous years. Quality is assessed by a sample of around 20 fruit from each bin, with top ups paid on a sliding scale for each five per cent above a base of 80 per cent of fruit in the bin meeting colour, size and quality specifications.  

A supervisor records bin quality manually on a printed excel sheet and Rien and Maurice assess the performance weekly before adding uplifts to wage payments.  

“It’s very simple, you can look across those pages and you see if that one is regularly 80 per cent, or 100 per cent, it’s a matter of a moment.” 

Rien and Maurice wish to make sure the pickers know if they are being paid hourly rate or piece rate at the beginning of the day. “This new minimum wage law will make that decision clear for the pickers,” Rien said.        

This article is one of a series on adapting to new minimum wage and record keeping requirements that appeared in the AFG magazine, Autumn 2022 – see AFG publications here. 

Rien Silverstein Photo: Darren James Photography.

Rien Silverstein Photo: Darren James Photography.

Orchardist Rien Silverstein and Napota Simaika, Silver Orchards’ manager and Pastoral Care Officer for the business’s seasonal workers. Photo: Darren James Photography.

 

 

 

 

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