The Australian horticulture industry is predicted to be 26,000 workers short over the next six months to pick and pack fruits and vegetables for consumers, with AUSVEG urging State and Federal Governments to act now to help growers get access to essential farm workers.
The Seasonal horticulture labour demand and workforce study, completed by EY to assess the shortage of workers across the fruit and vegetable industries in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, predicts the casual labour gap in Australian horticulture will increase from November this year and will reach a peak in March 2021, with up to 26,000 workers required in different regions across Australia.
The report indicates that while workers will be needed across Australia, seven key production regions were predicted to be hardest hit due to worker shortages: Cairns and Wide Bay (Queensland); North West Victoria and Shepparton (Victoria); Coffs Harbour Grafton and Murray (New South Wales); and South Australia’s south eastern region.
AUSVEG, Australia’s peak industry body for vegetable and potato growers, is urging State and Federal Governments to listen to the concerns of growers and act now to ensure that they have access to the domestic and dedicated seasonal workers they need to be able to harvest their fruits and vegetables.
“Immediate interventions are required to increase the availability of willing and able workers to work on fruit and vegetable farms, including the urgent prioritisation of the Seasonal Worker Programme to resume flights to neighbouring countries with ready workers wanting to work on our farms and appropriate incentives in place for domestic workers who are willing and able to work on our farms,” said AUSVEG CEO James Whiteside.
“The pilot trial of the Seasonal Worker Programme in the Northern Territory has demonstrated that there is an appetite from growers and workers alike to use this pathway to get workers on fruit and vegetable farms to perform much-need picking, harvesting and packing roles.”
“All states and territories, except Western Australia, have opted-in to restart the Seasonal Worker Programme, but there continues to be a slow drawn out process to deliver flights with workers from nations such as Tonga and Papua New Guinea to fill critical farm labour shortages from the domestic labour market and the decline in Working Holiday Makers in Australia.”
“Growers always have a preference to employ local workers, particularly during the current economic environment that is resulting in many Australians losing their livelihoods, but more needs to be done to develop targeted incentive packages to entice willing and able local workers to work on farms.”
“It has been agreed by all State and Federal Governments that agriculture is an essential service, but while growers have been working harder than ever to ensure the Australian public has high-quality fruits and vegetables during this health emergency, they are watching their hard work go to waste because governments cannot give them certainty that they will have workers to get their produce off the farm.”
“A separate and critical issue that needs to be addressed by State Governments is the effective movement of farm workers across state borders to ensure the interstate movement of agricultural workers and essential workers, which will give farmers more confidence that they will have the workers they need to get their food and fibre products to consumers during this time.”
“We have said that solutions to this issue will need a multi-pronged approach – access to an efficient and reliable workforce has been a long-term issue for vegetable growers that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“Fresh fruits and vegetables are a vital component to the health and wellbeing of every Australian and need to be picked and sent to market when they are ready, otherwise they will go to waste,” said Mr Whiteside.
AUSVEG has also supported the labour plan submitted by the National Farmers’ Federation’s Horticulture Council that will help give growers confidence that they can get the workers they need to get fruits and vegetables off the farm and to consumers.
AUSVEG is a member of the Horticulture Council, which has provided governments with 10 measures to attract displaced Australians to farm work and to safely restart the meaningful recruitment of foreign workers. The measures aim to provide temporary workers in regional areas with assurances that they will be supported, safe, and have full access to essential amenities and entitlements while minimising the risks posed to individuals, businesses and communities from COVID-19.
The Horticulture Council’s 10-point approach includes the following measures:
1. Seasonal Worker Programme Pilot Extension
2. Incentives for domestic displaced workers
3. Agricultural Workforce Code introduction
4. Promotion of opportunities to work in agriculture
5. Accommodation support
6. Establishing a National Agricultural Workforce Development Network
7. National Labour Hire Regulation
8. Working Holidaymaker Restart
9. Agriculture Visa
10. Horticulture Industry Labour Agreement (HILA) additional occupations