CONCERNED: Vegetable grower David Simon, of Gatton, says seasonal worker wage rises could severely impact his business.
CONCERNED: Vegetable grower David Simon, of Gatton, says seasonal worker wage rises could severely impact his business. ALI KUCHEL

Picker costs bring vegetable growers together

FRUIT and vegetable growers are being urged to put co-ordinated pressure for a price increase on Coles and Woolworths after being hit by a rise in minimum wages and seasonal worker conditions.

From July 1, the minimum wage increased by 3.5 per cent and seasonal workers will be entitled to overtime and night loadings following Fair Work Commission decisions.

Lockyer Valley vegetable grower David Simon said his business would struggle to adjust, as it had 40 workers on the books and no way of reducing its expenses to compensate for the increased wage costs.

His business was also hit with a 4.5 per cent increase in freight costs this year, driving the total increase in production costs to nearly 10 per cent.

"We're just going to have to wear it, our customers won't pay more - they don't want to know about it,” he said.

But Lockyer Valley Growers president Michael Sippel said supermarkets were bound by ethical purchasing guidelines.

If growers band together and push for consistent price increases, he said, those supplying Coles and Woolworths could see change in the short term.

"If enough growers put pressure on Coles and Woolies, and stick to that new price, you'd hope they get the message,” he said.

David Simon, Simon Farms, Gatton, with Broccolini plants.
David Simon, Simon Farms, Gatton, with Broccolini plants. ALI KUCHEL

The increasing labour costs will likely see growers focus on automation where technology permits.

Most local growers use automation in their packing sheds to some degree, Mr Sippel said, but picking fruit and vegetables was still very much a job for manual labour.

"The thing that really troubles growers is it's still a largely unskilled labour force,” Mr Sippel said.

Picking cauliflower, for example, takes skill and speed to do efficiently while maintaining quality.

"As much as people say it's not a skilled task, it is a skilled task,” he said.

He said harvesting contractors were paid $30 per hour or more but were supplying growers with people who needed training.

"If you're a backpacker and you've just arrived in Gatton, you can't tell me you're a skilled worker,” he said.

Growers should not have to pay a full wage while workers were learning the ropes, he said.

"They should get apprentice rates until they are skilled,” he said.