Vineyard wages are too low, say recent workers

Warren HatelyAugusta Margaret River Times
French backpacker Lara Monteiro says vineyard workers need a sustainable wage.
Camera IconFrench backpacker Lara Monteiro says vineyard workers need a sustainable wage. Credit: Warren Hately

A group of recent vineyard workers says Margaret River regional wineries must improve conditions for future workers and increase prices for picking.

With the 2020 vintage finished last week, foreign workers told the Times pay rates per bucket for vineyard work were far too low. The bucket rates are relied on by backpackers needing agricultural work for visa requirements, travellers and also resident vineyard workers.

Speaking on behalf of colleagues, French backpacker Lara Monteiro said most workers lacked the training and experience to earn a living wage through vineyards.

“It’s the wineries that set the price,” she said.

International pickers also had concerns for Margaret River residents reliant on seasonal picking jobs.

“Some work really, really hard and they are very experienced,” she said. “Without the local people, the wineries would not make their quota.”

The pickers said labour hire companies were good employers but spats about bucket rates spilled over on to social media last month after some backpackers left critical comments on winery social media pages — which were later deleted. Ms Monteiro said some wineries boasted of their support for female workers but didn’t follow through by paying adequate wages.

The backpackers found an ally in Fraser Gallop Estate owner Nigel Gallop, who told the Times the industry needed to standardise pay rates, especially for vintages like the one just concluded where yields were down 20 to 25 per cent, affecting overall wages.

“It should be an established yield rate and if it comes in lower, it should be raised to pay those kids,” he said.

“We want a picker to earn reasonable pay rates for picks.

“If we don’t treat them fairly, they won’t come,” Mr Gallop said.

“And if they don’t come, we are reduced to picking by machines, and we don’t want that.”

Mr Gallop said the Margaret River Wine Association needed to take a leading role to standardise rates for vineyard work across varietals.

MRWA chief executive Amanda Whiteland has proposed a round-table meeting with local labour hire companies and relevant wineries after Easter “to discuss any issues and opportunities for the future, and also during the COVID-19 period”.

No comment was offered on bucket prices relating to backpacker concerns.

Local wineries contacted for comment declined to enter the debate.

As reported last month, the wine industry would offer unemployed residents a lifeline through pruning work in coming months. About 450 workers would be sought.

Visit margaretriver.wine/work for more details on upcoming pruning work.

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