MY PARTNER’S alarm goes off at 3am. I don’t wake, I’m used to it. He might get home for a quick breakfast at 9am but as calving begins and the weather deteriorates I’ll be lucky to see him before noon, by which time he’s starving and exhausted. He won’t be back till 8pm for a shower and dinner, after which he crawls into bed, absolutely shattered. 

Living on a dairy farm last year, this was our life five to six days a week and we aren’t the only ones.

It is considered the norm for dairy workers to work more than 12 hours a day in harsh weather conditions, performing demanding physical labour, and all for $20 an hour if you’re lucky. This isn’t good enough. The lowest-level adult, full-time farm hand is required to be paid just $18.29 under the Pastoral Award. The highest level’s minimum wage is $22.88 and managers aren’t even covered.

Full-time senior staff with more than 10 years’ experience earn less under the award than casual retail assistants or administration assistants straight out of high school.

Farm workers feed the country. They directly contribute to a $13 billion industry, yet their minimum wage is falling woefully short of what their demanding profession requires. Many farm hands work regardless of illness or injury as there is no one to cover them if they take time off. They are expected to arrive at work because if they don’t, animals go hungry, cows aren’t milked and co-workers are put at risk.

To pay such an integral workforce so little undervalues and disheartens them. Many dairy workers leave the industry for a better quality of life.

The low award rate is not the only thing driving people away. Many farm workers do not sign employment contracts or aren’t aware of their rights under the award. This allows some farm owners to take advantage of them, paying them below minimum wage and denying them overtime.

Meanwhile, the many dairy farmers who stick to the guidelines need to be supported. When it’s cheaper to buy a litre of milk than it is to buy a litre of water, how can we expect these business owners to offer competitive remuneration?

Poor treatment of workers is not just damaging to individuals but the industry as a whole.

Farm workers need to be respected and valued for the hard and integral work they do. Let’s stop biting the hand that feeds us.

 

Source: The Weekly Times