A five-point plan to tackle the acute, COVID-19 induced labour shortage affecting fresh fruit and vegetables has been released.
The initiative centres on lowering quarantine costs, presenting a workable visa approval process, increasing incentives for Australian workers and facilitating labour mobility across state borders.
NSW Farmers' CEO Pete Arkle said time was running out for governments to work on a solution to ensure the country has the required workers to assist with harvests during 2021.
"So far fruit and vegetable crop losses across the country as a direct result of ongoing labour shortages now exceed $50 million," Mr Arkle said.
Only around 40,000 working holiday makers, the majority of them backpackers, now remain in Australia, compared to around 200,000 pre-COVID levels - and they are leaving Australia to return home at around 1000 per week.
"Unfortunately the federal government's attempts to address the worker shortage have failed and because of the nature of the jobs, attracting local workers is incredible hard, often impossible," Mr Arkle said.
The plan in detail:
- Lower costs- Facilitation and subsidies of quarantine costs to restart the Pacific Labour Scheme and the Seasonal Workers Program.
NSW remains the highest cost state for hotel quarantine at $3,000 per person and is the only state yet to implement a program to reduce the cost for essential horticultural and agricultural workers. The cost is not economically viable for the majority of the industry to in particular the he Seasonal Worker Scheme, as workers coming in on this visa can only stay for a maximum of 9 months. Other States have implemented a range of assistance programs including on-farm quarantine, room sharing or direct subsidies to assist reduce the cost for industry, drawing the pool of available workers away from NSW.
- Workable visas - Expedited visa approval process and assistance to coordinate the sharing of seasonal workers during their stay/flexibility introduced to current visa requirements.
There are reports of the Commonwealth visa processing times taking up to six-weeks and the current visas are inflexible, making them suitable for only some industry participants, favouring the larger producers and farms.
The Seasonal Worker Program and Pacific Islander Scheme require workers to stay with a single employer for the duration of their visa, whereas the nature of the horticulture industry and key periods such as harvest, are relative short in duration. This pattern has traditionally suited a more itinerate, Working Holiday Maker (backpacker) workforce who are able to move between farms and districts. The lack of flexibility of these visas, make the option inaccessible for small and medium employers.
- State control of arrival caps - States being given greater control to manage the make-up of the state's arrivals cap so that international workers can be brought in.
We recognise that returning Australian travellers will continue to be a focus for governments. Because of this, the Commonwealth must also offer the States increased flexibility around the make-up of their arrival caps. This need includes the option to extend the current cap for the purpose of bringing in necessary seasonal workers immediately, if we are to even start addressing the workforce requirements of the horticulture and other agricultural industries.
- Encourage domestic workers - Increase incentives for agricultural work.
Commencing an inflow of overseas workers will only deliver part of the solution to the significant labour shortages being experienced by industry given the time taken for visa approvals and the limitation on numbers under the arrival cap. Attracting a domestic workforce to meet some of the demand therefore remains a priority. We call on the governments to increase incentives for agricultural work, i.e. increasing earning cap for retirees before their pension is affected or allowing a pause to the job-seeker payments without delayed restart, to make it more desirable for domestic workers to take up seasonal work.
- Mobile Workers - Ensuring labour mobility across state borders for workers in agriculture and related supply chain is maintained despite fluctuations in new cases of COVID.
Rapidly changing state border closures as COVID infection rates fluctuate or when there are outbreaks in various states has significantly impacted the reliability, continuity and availability of agricultural workers. In particular, the available domestic workforce are not willing to travel out of their home state for risk of not being able to return home without incurring quarantine and the associated costs. Through National Cabinet an agreement must be reached, focusing on a solution that enables free movement of all agricultural workers across state borders.