AUSVEG Chairman Bill Bulmer says a national approach to addressing labour concerns in agriculture is one of the key issues he would like to see following this year's federal election.
"The labour issue is the major focus of everyone within the industry," he said. "When you say labour, it has so many tentacles. It brings in all the good and the bad. So, one we are short of labour in highly-skilled, semi-skilled and the basics of everyday jobs that needs to be done on farms. There has been a lot of work done to collate that information, through the National Data Alliance, but the trouble is, as farmers, we don't help ourselves in that we don't divulge a lot of information. It also doesn't help that we have the multilayers of state and the state labour hiring schemes that are coming into place. As a national body we would like a national approach, instead of seven different licencing agreements - that's not going to make sense."
Mr Bulmer added that there is unlikely to be change under the current government which is virtually in caretaker mode until the Federal election that is expected to be held in May. While measures exist to address some of the challenges raised by unions and the Fair Work Ombudsman, it is about bringing it all together.
"Going forward with a new government, and I think there will be a new government there might be a chance to talk to a new Agriculture Minister," he said. "Hopefully we can get a national scheme. We have got unscrupulous labour-hire operators within the industry who are underpaying, and we've got the dodgy employment system that is not looking after the welfare and social issues that are associated with the workers that we need - and that is the stigma that sticks to us. It is portrayed in the industry - and while it is only a small number, it encompasses us all. That is something that we are trying come to some sort of agreement, where we can put something in place."
He says a change of government could also mean more pressure from the unions to increase the number of local workers.
"We have to sit down at the table and tell them how it happens in the agriculture industry," Mr Bulmer said. "We are price takers, and to be fair we need to put it on the table and show them our costings. If they want their workers to receive a certain wage, what are they going to do to help us. We'll help them, but they'll have to go to the retailers and say 'if you keep putting pressure on your suppliers to deliver low cost of production, it's not going to work'. It has got to be clear and transparent."
Mr Bulmer says change might come through one of many forms, including: labour hire reforms, an Agriculture Visa, social licencing, or an ethical standard - but there also needs to be a 're-branding' of the image of working in the industry in the modern day.
"It's not just a matter of saying 'we can't get someone to work in the field', but can we get someone to work in the packhouse? Can we get an agronomist? Can we get these extra services we need that tie the horticulture industry together?" Mr Bulmer said. "In a bigger picture itself we have taken horticulture for granted for so long in this country, we haven't got a skill-base. We have some colleges that are still trying to push agriculture courses, but we need to re-think, from a government level where we need to get the message out that agriculture is not a 'head down, bum up' scenario, there are a lot of avenues where we need people. Let's show all the good things, and the good aspects that can come of agriculture."
The AUSVEG chairman admits that it will take some time to fully implement an education programme that highlights the career pathways.
"It's not just about getting your hands dirty, or standing out in the cold and wet, there is a lot of other areas we need to focus on," Mr Bulmer said. "That will be a long-term thing. But short term we have heard about the Ag Visa, getting people into the country to fill positions."
While not all produce is harvested year-round, Mr Bulmer has floated the idea of a "harvest trail", where workers are guaranteed jobs for the full year, making it more attractive.
"We can actually work it through labour-hire companies where they can follow the trail and give them a reasonable amount of work," he said. "If they are overseas workers through the employment schemes, they are probably happy to go home for three months of the year. Under the MADEC scheme we are using at the moment, we could only get them for six months, but we got that extended to nine months. In our industry you have a quiet period in the winter, they can go home, but Queensland can be doing something in that part. So, there can be a revolving door of people."
For example, the East Timorese, which Mr Bulmer says are prepared to work different patterns.
"They are coming from a poor third world country, where we are helping out in terms of foreign aid," "They are getting Australian award rates. But for those guys they want to come here, work as much as they can, make as much money, and take it home and make their lives better. That's what they are all about. They aren't interested in working 38-hour weeks, that is not on their agendas. So, we have to be mindful on how we operate within those organisations as well."