For months, the horticultural industry has warned of not enough people to harvest fruit and vegetables this coming summer. This could see crops left unpicked, price hikes and shortfalls on supermarket shelves come Christmas.
What’s the problem?
Last week EY released a report predicting a shortfall of 26,000 workers. Commissioned by Hort Innovation, the report quantifies what many already knew. Australia relies on international workers to harvest horticultural crops and this year we are not going to have enough.
International border restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID have limited the incoming flow of international workers. Backpackers and ‘seasonal workers’ coming via the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) are the two main international sources of farm labour.
MADEC – which runs the national Harvest Trail Information Service linking growers with workers – outlined the challenge. Backpacker numbers are down and will not recover quickly. Those still here will likely go back to preferred work, such as hospitality, outside of horticulture. Of the seasonal workers remaining in the country, many may want to return home as soon as they can. So even if more arrive, the net number may stay the same.
Glimmers of hope
A COVID-safe pilot restart of the SWP in the Northern Territory has seen 162 people from Vanuatu come to pick mangoes. This is a positive result. However, growers must pay both flight and quarantine costs for incoming workers – a costly endeavour.
The Federal budget also offers some help, with $6,000 on offer to cover the cost of Australians re-locating for harvest work. This is important because the costs of moving for temporary and uncertain work are hard to justify for a typical fruit-picker’s income. JobMaker will also financially support younger people taking up new jobs – including those employed on farms.
According to The Weekly Times, Federal Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud is expected to announce changes to both the SWP and the working holiday maker program (covering backpackers visiting on ‘Working Holiday’ and ‘Work and Holiday’ visas). Currently backpackers coming in on these visas do not have to work on farms in the first instance, but they must do so to secure second and third year visas. It will be interesting to see what changes will be announced.
Two of the foreseen ‘problem’ regions identified by EY are in Victoria: Shepparton (a hub for pear, apple and tomato production) and north-west Victoria (think almonds, citrus, table grapes and vegetables).
Victoria has signed on to the Agriculture Workers’ Code allowing verified agricultural workers to cross otherwise closed state borders. It also has its Agriculture Workforce Plan that focuses on improving COVID safety and linking growers with workers.
Both are welcome initiatives, but both rely on people already in the country who are working, or are willing to work, on farms.
For growers to employ Australians, they want to feel confident that the workers are ready, able and willing to work. Yet attracting domestic workers has long been a challenge. Will COVID be the trigger that spurs a new work-ready batch of Australians onto farms?
Picking fruit can be physically demanding. City-dwellers would need to leave their homes for a potentially transient lifestyle. Not a match for everyone. But unemployment rates are high, so the prospect of any work may appeal to some.
Farm work does provide an opportunity to see and travel Australia. You can work outdoors in a healthy environment. You can connect with how and where food is produced. And you can meet new and interesting people – including those from overseas.
Victoria has also opted into the SWP restart. However, Victoria is still not accepting any international passenger flights. So new seasonal workers can neither land, quarantine nor work in the state.
A way forward
The Horticulture Council of the National Farmers’ Federation represents 18 horticultural industry and state representative bodies. It has proposed a ten-point plan to help address the farm labour shortage:
- Seasonal Worker Program pilot extension
- Incentives for domestic displaced workers
- Agricultural Workforce Code introduction
- Promotion of opportunities to work in agriculture
- Accommodation support
- Establishing a National Agricultural Workforce Development Network
- National labour hire regulation
- Working Holidaymaker restart
- Agriculture Visa
- Horticulture Industry Labour Agreement (HILA) additional occupations
As Victoria, hopefully, emerges from its second COVID wave, attention to farm labour issues and how to deal with them will hopefully become a priority. The Horticulture Council’s points provide industry guidance on how to help.
Demand for Australian-grown produce will remain high. Our produce is among the best in the world. Not only do Australians love it but it is a prized export. Promising weather conditions also bode well for a good harvest in Victoria.
We just need people on the ground to help with the harvest.
This will mean jobs and unique life experiences for locals; income for our friends and neighbours from Pacific island countries (under SWP); and a renewed opportunity to promote Australia as an appealing and safe tourism and work destination for backpackers.
We could also engage with industry to support it in other ways to become more appealing to workers. Looking after workers by quashing out illegal workers and unfair treatment of workers on farms is key. Regional communities could also rethink accommodation options and otherwise look to meet the demands of a different workforce. Then showcase those regions as great places to visit, live and work.
Albeit a long-term consideration, investing in research and development to support automation and mechanisation to make on-farm work easier and less labour-intensive would also help.
Solutions to the problem are out there and we can all find a way to help. Let’s work together so we can all enjoy our favourite produce on the dinner table this Christmas.
The Rural Press Club of Victoria is hosting the panel discussion ‘Victorian farm-labour solutions’ on World Food Day, 16 October 2020 at 11am (AEDT). The live webinar will focus on understanding the challenge and identifying solutions.
The event will be convened by national agribusiness journalist Sue Neales with guest speakers:
- Victorian Shadow Minister for Agriculture Peter Walsh,
- Orchardist Peter Hall from Integrity Fruits, and
- CEO of Australian Fresh Produce Alliance Michael Rogers.
Register to attend ‘Victorian farm labour solutions’ and join the conversation on Twitter at #PickingWinners with @RPCVic and @bluechillie.
Thank you to those people who I talked to who inspired and informed this blog, and to those who provided input including Susan McNair, and Laura Griffin for her proofreading.