Citrus Picking – A Character Builder
By Peter Angel, State Manager – National Harvest Labour Information Service, MADEC
Picking citrus and working in citrus packing sheds is hard work, but jobs are available all year round and harvest lasts a few months meaning workers can stay in the one location and keep working.
Picking citrus involves climbing up and down a ladder all day, with a bag full of fruit over your shoulders. It really highlights who are stayers and who gives up easily. But it beats pounding the pavement for hours or paying a gym membership to keep fit.
Those that stick it out for a few weeks will see their picking speed increase significantly from the frustrating first week, where everybody wonders how the experienced pickers make so much money. Nobody is an expert at any job in their first week, and your piecework earnings will be low to start with, so be prepared to have enough cash with you for living costs until you get the hang of it. And, although an empty 400-kilogram bin looks daunting, you will find a great deal of satisfaction as you fill each one quicker and quicker over time.
Where and when to go
The three big regions for citrus picking in Australia are the Riverina centred on Griffith in NSW, the Sunraysia surrounding Mildura in Victoria, and the Riverland in South Australia which includes Renmark, Loxton and Waikerie. These regions specialise in oranges, mainly the winter Navel fruit with is largely destined for export, or the Valencia oranges that are harvested in the warmer months and service the juice trade as well as for fresh consumption. Parts of Queensland also have some significant citrus crops, mainly specialising in mandarins.
Winter Navels start in May or even as early as April, but the best work opportunities don’t materialise until June when the harvest starts to peak. The big advantage of citrus work is that the harvest lasts a long time and work is available almost all year with little moving around.
What’s the work like
Picking is all done by hand and employment is either directly with the farmer themselves, or labour hire contractors that they engage. Work is usually halted if it rains, but the big production areas are in very low rainfall areas so this happens rarely. However, winter fruit produced for fresh consumption can only be picked once the overnight chill and dew has gone, and the day starts to warm up. So, the upside is that if you’ve partied a bit hard the night before, you can snuggle down in your doona and have a sleep-in. The downside is that sometimes the working days can be short so earning capacity can sometimes be limited and out of your control.
Like a lot of fruit picking work it is important to listen to instructions about the correct picking technique. Mandarins are mostly ‘snipped’ or cut off the tree with blunt-nosed shears which is much slower than picking, but you are paid at a higher rate. Oranges must have their ‘button’ intact when picked but without long stems remaining attached which damages other fruit in the bin. Making sure you understand the induction is critical as incorrectly picked fruit is unsaleable and your employment may be short-lived if you waste too much fruit while learning.
The extra time you spend concentrating on mastering correct picking during that first week, when your legs are feeling like lead from so many trips up and down the ladder, can be a blessing in disguise. People that think ahead use that first week to build leg fitness and to concentrate on technique which helps once they start to pick up their speed.
For those that prefer to work inside there are also jobs in the packing sheds. Here, speed is less important than accuracy and judgement, and the ability to concentrate all day is paramount when sorting fruit according to criteria provided by the supervisor.
There are also some other tasks which are fast paced but mundane, like assembling cardboard boxes. Those with a forklift ticket have many opportunities in packing sheds as good forklift operators are highly valued and in demand.
Most jobs in the sheds are paid hourly although simple easily counted tasks, like box making, may still be offered under piecework. Although some people prefer hourly paid work, you can never earn any more if you are good, you just have a happy supervisor, whereas a fast picker under piecework can earn well above the hourly rate.
A reminder about piecework
For any piecework tasks you must be told the rate being offered before your work starts. It must be in writing, with a copy provided to you that is signed by the employer. Always keep this document, it is important.
Always keep a tally of the work you do, either carry a small notebook and pencil, or use your phone to record the numbers as you go. This helps protect you from being cheated and can resolve misunderstandings very amicably.
Make sure you know who your employer is, especially if being employed by a contractor – find out their business name and record their Australian Business Number (ABN) which you can confirm online. It is almost impossible for authorities to help you with disputes if you don’t know who you are being employed by.
If you don’t understand any conditions of your employment do not hesitate to ask, and if you suspect you are being fobbed off, find work with someone else! The Fair Work Ombudsman is an office provided by the Australian Government to protect workers, so don’t hesitate to contact them if you believe you have been cheated or treated unfairly in the workplace. If you don’t report wrongdoing by employers, they will simply cheat someone else.
Citrus picking can be a hard slog, but with work available almost all year round, it can be rewarding for those that are fit, learn, and persist to improve their speed.