Worker plan food for thought, no panacea

The NFF say today’s release of the much-anticipated National Agriculture Workforce Strategy comes as farmers seek immediate and longer-term answers to crippling worker shortages.

NFF CEO Tony Mahar said the strategy unfortunately did not provide a silver bullet but outlined wide-ranging practical measures that if implemented, could increase agriculture’s labour pool for the future.

“A lack of farm workers and accessibility to training has been a perennial problem for agriculture and has been exacerbated by international and local COVID-19 border restrictions.

“The problem is multi-faceted and complex and is right now costing farmers and regional communities.”

Mr Mahar said the NFF had long called for the establishment of an apprenticeship-style accreditation for farm workers, that enabled skill portability.

“To see this as one of the key recommendations is excellent. It must be acted on as soon as practicable, as should steps to better connect agriculture with the VET sector. There is also an urgent need for significantly expanded funding for regional ag-related vocational training.”

The strategy recommends doing more to promote the diverse roles available in agriculture, better communication of job opportunities and a survey to determine the sentiment of Australians towards farm work.

“These are sound recommendations. With so many local workers displaced, it is disappointing that more Australians are not pursuing farm work. Not enough is being done to communicate the many, many opportunities available. We also need to better understand the perceived and actual barriers to farm work.

“We also agree with the strategy’s identified need to review and expand Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations to accurately reflect contemporary agrifood occupations.”

Mr Mahar said the NFF welcomed a crackdown on labour hire providers, while our preference remained for a national licensing scheme.

“Rogue labour hire provides play a significant part in horticulture’s widely acknowledged problem with undocumented workers and the unacceptable, and sometimes illegal treatment of workers. More accountability is needed to stamp out what is a scourge on our industry.

“While we recognise the problem, a simplistic approach to addressing the status resolution of undocumented workers needs to be well thought through, and as yet the NFF is yet to see sufficient detail on how it could be satisfactorily addressed.”

Mr Mahar congratulated the Strategy’s authors for considering measures to increase both the number of local and international workers.

“For the foreseeable future, many farmers will rely on a combination of both. Making the Seasonal Worker Program more user friendly is important. Currently, the program is hampered by red tape which farmers report as a barrier to uptake.”

Mr Mahar said it was disappointing the strategy did not recommend the establishment of a dedicated ag-visa solution, but welcomed the prospect of existing migration programs evolving to be more responsive to the needs of farmers.

“The NFF will continue to make this case to Government, as a means of better targeting the skills needed; building on the existing country-to-country relationships and to ensuring the wellbeing of workers.”

Mr Mahar acknowledged the work dedicated to the strategy by National Agricultural Labour Advisory Committee, Chair John Azarias and his supporting team.

“The strategy demonstrates an in-depth knowledge of the complexities and gravity of the problem and provides comprehensive recommendations.

“The NFF supports the main message of the strategy that Australian agriculture and its supply chain is complex and to thrive it needs continuous capability development.

“The challenge now is to fund the high-priority, high-impact measures and provide farmers light at the end of tunnel, to what is an ever-worsening impediment to productivity.

“The NFF has identified a failure to address agriculture’s workforce shortage and the capacity to lift skills via training, as major constraints to the sector achieving $100 billion in farm gate output by 2030.”

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