Labour shortage looming: Growers must act now!

Most growers now recognise that a seasonal worker shortfall this spring and summer season is inevitable – but do we really understand the depth of that shortage and what can we do about it?

The Harvest Trail Information Service (HTIS) is a Government-funded agency set up to assist farms to coordinate seasonal workers. State manager for HTIS, Peter Angel, said this years’ situation is unlike any we’ve seen before.

“Backpackers come to Australia with a one year Working Holiday Maker (WHM) visa program which has no work obligations. Some travel to rural areas to pick fruit just to enjoy the experience,” Mr Angel said.

“Most undertake farm work in order to qualify for a second year visa, which requires three months in a regional area. Short-term horticulture jobs are the ones that best fit backpackers’ needs. This dovetails nicely with the needs of growers.”

However, Mr Angel said the reality is that once they have completed their ‘88 days’ to qualify for the second year, backpackers then return to their travels or seek work where the tourism offer is best. Hospitality jobs are then their preference, with horticulture work having simply been a means-to-an-end and low on their list of future options.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 measures have stopped all incoming international visitors since March 2020, including backpackers. This means that by the summer season peak, almost all working holiday-makers interested in staying a second year will have been here long enough to have already done their 88 days of work.

“If most have already qualified for the second-year visa, there remains little incentive for them to do farm work – and few will do so,” Mr Angel said.

“With media reports focused on the halving of the number of backpackers in the country, the horticulture industry needs to realise that it is not just half the backpackers that will be available for the summer harvest season; it could be almost none!”

So, if a seasonal labour shortage is inevitable, what can growers do about it? Mr Angel said ideas to consider will include some obvious ones, but others may have previously been unthinkable.

·      Make sure vacancies are listed on the Harvest Trail website. The Harvest Trail is the Government program funded for this purpose, so all listings contribute to the Government’s understanding of labour needs – as well as attracting the attention of people looking for work

·      Get in early. Don’t wait until a couple of weeks before harvest before seeking a workforce, even for growers who have been able to do so in the past. This year is different – very different!

·      Growers need to make sure they are a desirable employer. They will be competing for staff against other growers and other industries, so they need to give workers a reason to come to them and not somebody else

·      Consider the unthinkable – offer above-award wages, higher piece-rates or bonuses. Even if the grower considers that option financially unviable – they need to do the maths. Which will cost more, paying extra for labour or losing the crop because it remains unpicked?

·      Minimise barriers such as access to budget accommodation and transport. Even cheap caravans on the farm at low rent will entice workers. Organising rides in and out of town can increase the potential labour pool significantly to attract those without their own transport

·      Tap into the Australian workforce even if previous experiences have not been encouraging. There are newly unemployed Aussies now out there with a good work history that might just take up the offer.

“Farm businesses will not be able to operate as they have always done and will need to be proactive. This year is different to any experienced in our lifetime and those that don’t change will feel the pain,” Mr Angel said.

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