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Big nights slow down mushroom pickers, says supervisor

COURT: Mushroom piece rates are under scrutiny in worker underpayment case.
COURT: Mushroom piece rates are under scrutiny in worker underpayment case. Jamie Brown

A SUPERVISOR testifying in a trial scrutinising horticulture payment rates said mushroom pickers worked more slowly when they chose to have "long conversations" or if they had had "a big night the night before".

Sharon Stevula, who now works as a supervisor at Marland Mushrooms' Staplyton plant, said when she was picking at Hinterland Mushrooms on the Sunshine Coast she harvested about 1200kg of mushrooms a week - and recalled she picked close to 1500kg during her best week

Fair Work Ombudsman barrister Justin Bourke suggested the figures were exaggerated, which she denied.

Piece rates pay workers on the basis of how many kilos they pick per hour, which is common practice in horticulture.

Marland Mushrooms has been accused of underpaying more than 400 workers $646,000 in 2014.

The workers were employed through contractor HRS Country on a piece rate basis.

HRS Country owner Tao Hu admitted during a trial in the Federal Court in Brisbane she knew workers were being underpaid.

Mr Bourke has argued pickers were receiving between 60 and 80 cents a kilogram, which was well short of the 91 cents a kilo they should have been earning.

During an eight-month Fair Work Ombudsman audit in 2014, the mean average of mushrooms picked per hour was 14 kilos, which was short of the 29.5 kilos needed to reach the appropriate award.

Ms Stevula said some workers were capable of picking more than others.

"Some days you have good days, and other days you have bad days," she said.

Ms Stevula was also questioned about the amount of time it took for workers to clean up their equipment at the end of a shift.

During the trial on Tuesday, former Marland Mushrooms picker Jing-Sin Jian, who called herself Fei while in Australia, explained through an interpreter that job could take half an hour as there were limited numbers of taps, and there was often a queue.

But Ms Stevula denied this was the case.

She said on average the job took between five and 10 minutes.

However, Mr Bourke questioned her about her written affidavit where she stated it was unusual for the task to take 30 minutes, and if it did, it would be because she had instructed the picker to rewash their equipment.

During the trial, Judge Darryl Rangiah also questioned Ms Stevula about her picking rate while working at Hinterland Mushrooms.

She said she was then working five days per week, and mostly worked fewer than 40 hours a week, often knocking off at 11am.

National Farmers' Federation barrister Richard Dalton spoke for the first time as an intervenor on the trial.

Mr Dalton described Fair Work's case as being "fundamentally flawed" and said it should be considered inadmissible.

The trial has been adjourned until October 25.

Topics:  federal court of australia horticulture marland mushrooms mushrooms national farmers' federation piece rates

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