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Australia faces workforce shortage of up to 26,000 people

"This isn't a narrow industry issue, this is a matter of food and national security"

A recently released report by EY details that the Australian fruit and vegetable industry is facing a workforce shortage of up to 26,000 people throughout the peak summer season. A shortage of workers will have a real impact on Australian consumers, with price increases and likely shortages of fruit and vegetables in supermarkets. The Australian Fresh Produce Alliance, AUSVEG and Growcom responded to the measures announced by the government. 

Australian Fresh Produce Alliance
The Australian Fresh Produce Alliance (AFPA) has previously welcomed the restart of the Seasonal Worker Program, allowing workers from the Pacific to come to Australia and help to pick fruit and
vegetables. Despite this no new workers have arrived in Australia, leaving many growers without a workforce to harvest their crop. “We have been working with relevant State and Territory governments, as well as Federal Departments to assist in restarting this program, but still, no new workers have arrived in Australia and in most states we’re at least 6-10 weeks away from that even looking likely” said AFPA CEO, Michael Rogers.

AUSVEG, Australia’s 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.”

Growcom welcomed the two separate measures announced by the Federal Government designed to address the critical labour shortage facing the horticulture industry, but warned greater interventions were likely still required. “It’s a start but we’d like to see the Federal Government go further and faster,” said Richard Shannon, Manager of Policy and Advocacy at Growcom. “Where we are today was entirely predictable three months ago or more. Where we’ll be mid next year is also plain to see. The shortage is already on us and will get worse. We can’t afford any time for tinkering, testing and trialing.”

The measures announced by the Federal Government include offering backpackers already in the country the option to extend their visas, and allowing Australians receiving JobSeeker to earn $300 each fortnight while working regionally without losing any of their payments. “The Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has said they’ll throw the kitchen sink at this problem. We take him at his word. But without any greater intervention the concern of industry is they’ve only thrown in the tea towel,” said Mr Shannon. “Extending visas for backpackers already in the country is the very least we can do. Whether being able to earn $150 per week in a regional location before losing welfare payments is going to act as the catalyst we need to fill the massive and immediate shortfall in labour is anyone’s guess." 

“And that’s just the point. We don’t know what’s going to work. With time not on our side, the smarter approach would be to be far more generous with incentives up front, leaving room to dial them back should we get an overwhelming response. This is not a narrow industry issue either. This is a matter of food security, then national security. There are also likely public health impacts. With the costs of attracting labour going up, so too will grocery prices. On top of that, with no confidence in labour availability, growers are also making decisions today about not producing the same amount of crop next year, or moving away from crop types that require large amounts of labour. This comes in the middle of a recession. Vulnerable people and those unemployed will not have access to a wide variety of fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts at affordable prices when they need it most. There are clear links between household food insecurity and poor long term health, education and social outcomes. Any spending by the Federal Government in fixing our labour shortage now is ultimately an investment in our long-term wellbeing as a nation.” 

For more information:
Australian Fresh Produce Alliance
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