A group of mothers is launching a court challenge today against their sackings from a Victorian mushroom farm after they refused to sign up to a 25% pay cut under the Federal Governments individual contracts, Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs).

The AWU is lodging a case in the Federal Court in Melbourne alleging that the dismissal of the six women last week by Merbein Mushroom Investments near Mildura was unlawful under Section 298K of the Workplace Relations Act.

The six women were the only members of Merbein’s workforce of about 45 who refused to sign the individual contracts. The new contracts cut their pay by an average of around $150 per week, or more than 25%. The AWAs replace hourly pay rates with a “piece” rate of 55 cents for each kilogram of mushrooms picked by the workers.

Some of the women have worked for the company as mushroom pickers for nearly eight years, but were classified as “casuals” and have received less than $1,000 in termination pay.

AWU National Secretary Bill Shorten said that similar cases would become more common under the Howard Government’s plans to promote individual contracts and cut Award conditions, being debated by Federal Cabinet today.

“It will be much easier for companies to impose pay cuts and to sack people for not signing individual contracts when the Howard Government abolishes basic workplace protections after it gains control of the Senate on July 1,” Mr Shorten said.

“Nearly all the sacked women have children to support. They are hard-working mothers in a difficult industry with serious occupational health and safety issues. Their only ‘crime’ was to refuse to sign an individual contract. Everyone else who signed the contracts kept their jobs, but have suffered significant pay cuts.”

The women were told to sign the individual contracts last month after the AWU successfully included the company’s workers in a “Common Rule” Award (the Horticultural Industry Award) to replace minimal conditions imposed by the former Kennett State Government. After refusing to sign the contracts, the women were dismissed last Wednesday (February 16).