Fruit picking has always been a tough job, but it was good fun and good money for young people, especially over the summer. Thousands headed up to places like Cobram for the “barracks” of the big orchards or camped on the Murray River for the season. Now the industry is so desperate for pickers it wants to bring in guest workers. Why?
It is a tough job in the summer heat. For peaches and pears the payment was by the bin — about half a tonne. The bags you pick into go over your shoulders and hang in front — like a pouch. Typically they’d hold one to one and half boxes and there were 22 boxes to the bin.
Top or “gun” pickers were able to pick six to 10 or more bins a day – but that meant running between the trees and up and down the ladders with 10- 20 kilo of fruit for eight hours or more. Students, travellers and hippy pickers averaged somewhat less but if they turned up early every day orchardists did not mind. The pubs were full over the summer and hundreds camped along the Murray – the local towns did well from the pickers.
Up until the late 1970’s it was all cash in hand — then everyone had to have a union ticket. The Australian Workers Union did well as people signed up as many names as were needed to avoid tax.
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Then came the need for real names, tax file numbers and so on. The real wage for pickers was being cut faster than farmers could increase the bin price paid for fruit. Making $100-300 per day meant the best workers were being taxed at “executive rates” as they picked. So gun pickers, the backbone of the industry, all but disappeared. For “learners”, wages are little better than the dole and then there’s the rising cost of fuel and accommodation. The more these costs increase the more food crops rot unpicked.
Now migrant workers are seen as the answer. It might work too, as they will be provided with accommodation, probably not have to pay tax and someone else will pay them to get there and back. Funny that we could not do that for our own
Exempting all fruit pickers from income tax — again — would have cost other taxpayers less.