AUSVEG, the peak industry body for the Australian vegetable industry, has welcomed the Government’s changes to the Relocation Assistance to Take Up a Job program to allow for flexibility to encourage short-term agricultural work, but warns growers will be left behind if they cannot get more workers on farms.
The announcement, labelled AgMove, will support people to take up short-term agricultural work and will accommodate short, intense harvest periods, providing more incentives for jobseekers to work on farm.
The more flexible incentives under AgMove will see Australians eligible for up to $2,000 in relocation assistance – $650 for temporary visa holders – when they complete just 40 hours of agricultural work over a two-week period, reduced from six weeks.
If workers continue in agricultural work and complete 120 hours across a period of at least four weeks, they will be eligible to access reimbursement of up to $6,000 for Australian workers and up to $2,000 for temporary visa holders.
AUSVEG CEO James Whiteside said that while the Government is responding to the concerns of industry regarding the chronic labour shortage, more needs to be done to also bring in more workers from neighbouring countries to harvest and package fruits and vegetables.
“Industry is fully supportive of the AgMove announcement; however, we continue to struggle to get the scale of workers that industry needs through the domestic market,” said Mr Whiteside.
“Growers need assurances that they can access a workforce. Unfortunately, history tells us that we cannot rely on domestic workers taking up the package in numbers.”
“Federal and State governments have plenty of money on the table for people willing and able to work in the horticulture sector and growers are standing by to give workers a fair go. However, we have been disappointed with the take up so far.”
“That is why industry has largely focused on the Seasonal Worker Programme and Pacific Labour Scheme to access workers which industry can have confidence in. The workers from the Pacific Islands are coming and committed to work in the horticulture sector and as an industry we are committed to them. We need to have quarantine pathways available to bring those workers in at the scale in which industry needs.”
Just 34,000 working holiday makers remain in the country, well down from the 141,000 backpackers as of January 1, 2020. The significant shortage of available backpackers is likely to have a significant impact on the sector as it enters the Northern territory and Queensland harvest periods.
“Growers will always have a preference to use local workers, so the AgMove will hopefully encourage more people to move to more regional areas and give farm work a go,” said Mr Whiteside.
“AgMove is not the silver bullet the industry needs as incentive programs to encourage locals to work on farm have largely failed, but we are encouraged that the Government is working with industry to find workable and reasonable solutions to this critical problem.”