Fiona Simson: It could be game over for farmers and their family-operated businesses

For more than 12 months the ACTU has been aggressively prosecuting its anti-big-business crusade. Painting business as the fat cat boogieman who exploits workers rather than create jobs.

The approach is straight from the ACTU’s now-tired songbook and ironically and sadly, serves only to hurt the people whose interests it purports to represent.

Taking a shortsighted view of the world, the ACTU’s call to “change the rules” and introduce a “living wage” is ­potentially disastrous for all – for workers, for business big and small, and especially for farmers.

In fact, for farmers – most of which are family-operated small businesses – a living wage policy could mean game over.

Stripped of ambiguity, cynicism and dog-whistle politics, the ACTU is demanding that employers pay workers more.

Farming families could lose everything under a “living wage”.

Certainly, workers should be paid properly. After all, farmers work, on average, 60 hours a week and are on call 24/7 year-round. We don’t shy away from the idea of an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.

If Australian workers are not paid enough, then of course something should be done.

However, Australia already has the third-highest minimum wage in the world, according to the OECD.

It’s also worth noting the Fair Work Commission’s annual wage review recently resulted in an increase that is slightly higher than the CPI.

So how should this pay rise be funded? This is something that, not surprisingly, the ACTU stops short of turning its mind to.

Contrary to the ACTU’s rhetoric, any changes to the minimum wage would be most acutely felt by small business – the dairy farm already battling to make ends meet or drought-stricken family sheep operation battling to keep fodder on the ground and food on the table.

Again, not surprisingly, the ACTU’s playground-like policy is not premised on any sort of productivity boost. It neither assumes nor enables workers to generate more income for their beef producer or strawberry grower employer.

ACTU’s call to “change the rules” and introduce a “living wage” is ­potentially disastrous for all. Artwork: Terry Pontikos

The NFF is gravely concerned about the impact of the introduction a so-called “living wage” on Australia’s farming families and by association, regional Australia as a whole.

Here are some facts: labour is one of a farm’s largest cash costs.

Australian farmers are among the least subsidised in the developed world.

Exporting about 70 per cent of what we produce, farmers compete with international markets with significantly lower labour costs.

Margins are tight in agriculture at the best of times.

Throw in drought or floods and surplus cash is non-existent.

So, if a rise in productivity won’t fund it, what will?

Solutions such as automation (and fewer employees) or, heaven forbid, a market correction so that consumers pay the true cost of production, may come into play, but this isn’t on the horizon any time soon. As of right now, there are few ways to rationalise or save costs.

Then what happens?

In the short term it’s this: farms employ fewer workers, produce less, earn less and contribute less to our already struggling regional communities. Ultimately, many could spiral out of business.

Some might say this is scaremongering, but the ACTU should put the proposition of a “living wage” to farmers in Katanning, Mildura or Moree and see what they say.

NFF President Fiona Simson
Fiona Simson is the President of the National Farmers’ Federation and a Liverpool Plains farmer.

Calls to “change the rules” and introduce “a living wage” and attacks on “big business” may sound like effective battles cries, but they are dangerous.

Farmers and other small businesses are the backbone of the Australian economy. They employ half the nation’s workers.

Industrial relations policy that makes putting on staff impossible and putting off staff a necessity – or worse, drives farms out of business – is bad for everyone.

It won’t just stymie growth, it will result in a contraction of the sector.

This is bad news for farms, of course, but also bad for consumers, for government and, yes, for the workers.

Contrary to the ACTU’s oppositional politics, we’re all in this together.

The NFF is calling for the next government to support agriculture in its vision to achieve $100 billion in farm gate output by 2030 – up from $60 billion currently.

Any moves to adopt the ACTU’s proposed “rule changes” will be a direct and deliberate impediment to agriculture reaching its potential.

This article was first seen on The Daily Telegraph 30 April 2019.

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