Worker shortage holds farmers to ransom

Imagine being forced to choose between the fruits of a whole year’s work and breaking the law. This is the predicament some Australian farmers face as they battle to find workers.

Towards a Durable Future: Tackling Labour Challenges in the Australian Horticulture Industry is a three-year in-depth look at Australian horticulture’s labour challenges.

The Report identifies the chronic shortage of legitimate, willing and capable workers in vegetable growing regions across Australia.

The National Survey of Vegetable Growers, found that 40% of those surveyed had not been able to recruit sufficient pickers, packers and graders at some point in the past five years. 63% reported leaving vegetables unpicked.

The lead author of the Report, University of South Australia, Law Professor Dr Joanna Howe concluded that some growers felt forced to rely upon ‘undocumented’ migrants who work and remain in Australia, in breach of their visa conditions and to engage in practices in breach of Australian labour standards.

Mr Mahar said the NFF continued to call for the introduction of an Agricultural Visa to ease horticulture’s labor crisis and to prevent worker exploitation.

“An specialised tailored Ag Visa would ensure workers have entered Australia via legal and legitimate means; are working in accordance with visa conditions, and that their presence in the Australian workforce is transparent. Importantly, it would protect against exploitation.

“Only growers who could demonstrate their compliance with the law would be able to access the program,” Mr Mahar said.

“An Ag Visa would also have safeguards to ensure workers know their rights, know who to turn to, and are not bullied into thinking that they have to put up with mistreatment.”

In October last year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison publicly committed to the new visa, but so far no action has been taken.

Programs such as GrowCom’s Fair Farms initiative are also important to better inform growers of their obligations and to educate workers on their rights.

This week the NFF welcomed the Government’s commitment to finalise a National Labour Hire Licence Scheme, following the release of the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce Report led by Dr Allan Fels AO.

Mr Mahar said industry needed to continue to work with retailers to encourage more equitable returns for farmers and to better educate consumers on the true cost of producing food.

“Ultimately, the objective is to improve farmers’ returns and farm workers’ wages. Wages are one of the largest expenses in a grower’s overall production costs.

“Of course the ongoing priority challenge is to strengthen and expand our domestic farm workforce.”

Mr Mahar said solving agriculture’s worker deficit was paramount to agriculture achieving a farm gate output value of $100 billion by 2030 and a key component of NFF’s 2030 Roadmap.”

Towards a Durable Future: Tackling Labour Challenges in the Australian Horticulture Industry is available here

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