How effective do you think task work is in motivating farm workers? You know the system – a task is set for the day, and when the worker is finished, he or she can go home. Supervisors love it. There’s no cajoling or chasing to be done. Everyone works flat out so they can get home as early as possible. Workers love it, as they’re able to spend many hours idle. Farm managers love it.
Early in the day they see workers energetically tackling their jobs. Later, everyone has gone home so there’s no one to be seen loafing. It’s a system that has been used for generations, but this is no recommendation, because it’s a disaster for productivity in agriculture. It does nothing to motivate exceptional workers to use their energy or skill to maximum advantage – to work a full day and become more productive.
It has no future in an industry that desperately needs to increase worker productivity and reduce costs. If we want to increase worker productivity, we need reward systems that recognise exceptional performance with something other than free time, and that link pay with output. These other systems really work, and I speak from experience.
One of the annual jobs in citrus production is the skirting of the trees – pruning branches that hang down onto the ground and soil the fruit. It’s done soon after harvesting, and the speed with which it is completed depends on the age and size of the tree. In the bygone days of ‘cheap’ labour, we had perfected the task-work – or gwaza – system for every size of tree. So when I broached the subject of switching to a piece-work system with one of our supervisors, where we would pay a fixed amount per tree, he was full of reasons why it would not work.
He said the workers would not understand it. They would be suspicious of our intentions. It would mean he’d have no time for anything else but counting the trees skirted every day. The pay office wouldn’t be able to handle all the different amounts due to each worker. And so on. But I prevailed on him. We only wanted to try it. If it didn’t work, we would go back to the old way, and we would only do it with workers willing to give it a try. We started with eight workers. The rate per tree was pitched at a figure slightly less than it was currently costing us, and away we went.
I bumped into James, the supervisor, a week later and asked how it was going. He was excited and tired. An orchard that
would have taken a week to skirt under gwaza had been finished in two days. Four of the eight workers had been in the orchards from dawn to dusk for the full week – and earned as much as they had in the previous month. Two had earned double their normal weekly gwaza-based wage, and two of the least productive had requested a transfer back to the gwaza squad.
James was being inundated with requests from his other most productive workers to switch to piece-work. If he accepted them, he would have far too many workers, and would have to transfer some elsewhere or pay them off. James was exhausted from trying to keep up with supervising his new piece-work skirters, as well as his gwaza workers.
Skirting productivity had gone up 200%.
Learning from mistakes
It was a huge lesson for us, and we gradually moved over to piece-work wherever possible. But there were unforeseen consequences. Supervisors initially struggled to get to grips with the much higher intensity of management required. We had also badly underestimated the high output of properly incentivised workers, and had set the per-unit pay rates far too high.
This led to certain unskilled workers earning much more than some semi-skilled and even skilled employees, and we had a backlash. It put pressure on our normal daily paid rates and resulted in tensions with the other workers. All the same, worker productivity went through the roof.
Homework is essential
If you still have workers on gwaza, now is the time to move to piece-work as far as possible. But remember to do your homework:
- Determine just how much potential there is for increased output.
- Carefully calculate the rate per unit so as not to unbalance your wage system.
- Set up a feedback system for the workers involved so that they know how well they’re doing.
- Introduce change slowly and voluntarily to avoid suspicion, and to build trust and confidence in the new system.
But whatever you do, get rid of the gwaza system as soon as possible!
Contact Peter Hughes at [email protected]. Please state “Managing for profit” in the subject line of your email.
This article was originally published in the 14 June 2013 issue of Farmer’s Weekly.