Rotten state of fruit & vege picking is a direct result of the backpacker tax

May 16th, 2017 | | Accommodation

The farm sector is becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of ‘picking’ labour with a new report revealing that up to a quarter of Australia’s vegetable growers are forced to abandon valuable produce, which is left to rot because they don’t have the available workforce to pick it.

With the declining interest of local workers in doing low skilled picking, growers are calling on the government to rethink the Working Holiday Maker and Pacific Seasonal Worker visa programs to attract more workers.

The study, undertaken by the University of Adelaide Law School, suggested that the challenges in finding workers was not only a strain on the economy, but the byproduct of food wastage was devastating.

Associate Professor Joanna Howe, from the study said: “We are seen as the food bowl of Asia, but if we don’t have the workers to get the produce out from the farms and into the supermarkets and out for export, it is a real concern about the sustainability of that industry,” she said.

“It means that growers are finding it hard to expand because they are not sure they have enough workers to meet that expansion. “We do not have a sustainable way at present of meeting labour supply in this industry.”

The large academic study surveyed 332 vegetable growers across Australia and found two thirds had difficulty getting low-skilled workers to pick, pack and grade their produce.

Of those who had difficulty recruiting labour, 63 per cent left vegetables unpicked. This group represented a quarter of the growers surveyed. Last year as the backpacker tax uncertainty dragged on, some growers decided not to plant fruit and vegetables this season in case they cannot find workers to harvest them.

Dr Howe believes the conditions backpackers endure aren’t always conducive to long term work.

“But we know that the visa extension is heavily linked to visa exploitation and we have heard from many growers that those workers often only stay 88 days, aren’t productive and aren’t committed to staying in the sector beyond the 88 days,” she said.

“It is highly concerning that an industry that is of such critical importance to our GDP and our food security and export markets is so reliant on this transient labour force.

Local workers don’t want to do this work in great numbers anymore – it is low status, low paid and difficult conditions and often very short-term casual work that doesn’t give them any security.”

The federal government’s decision last year to increase the backpacker tax certainly seems to be the nail in the coffin.

“The research has identified a serious endemic labour supply challenge and it is only going to get worse because locals are removing themselves from this industry and the current visa options do not provide a holistic and comprehensive response,” Dr Howe said.

Has the uncertainty over the backpacker tax planted a poisonous seed in labour for the horticultural and farming sector industry? Can it be repaired? Have your say. 

Sourced by Alex Harmon

Source: The Daily Advertiser

3 Responses

  1. John George says:

    Frankly I continue to be bemused by falling back on this backpacker tax reason. maybe I am wrong and there is empirical evidence that this is the issue, but I have never seen it.
    As I have said time and time again my view is that Piecework rates are the prime issue, with firstly the rate per bin, box or whatever and secondly the backpacker’s ability to do the work fast enough to make the minimum wage and so not put their chances of a second year visa at risk.
    Check out Facebook Australia Backpackers to see what people say, read blogs, read the local media in farming areas and see the stories of ‘exploitation’. which never has a backpacker talking about the ‘backpacker tax’, only about how hard it is to make money on piecework.
    Since I operate 2 backpacker hostels in Mildura, and operate labour hire to get around many but not all growers who cannot get their heads around pay slips, written piecework agreements or tax, I believe I have some knowledge of what backpackers think.
    None have ever rung to ask what rate of tax will they be charged, most ring to ask about the job situation, and are rarely excited about picking or pruning at piecework rates, because they have heard horror stories about it.
    If I am wrong, I’d be happy to here it.
    And just an aside. In our local paper today is a story about the number of pickers in Mildura being adequate for the citrus harvest about to start. The grower talks about at $25 per bin. That rate was being offered to pickers in 2015, and now it is still the rate to a picker in 2017.. Go figure!

  2. brettio says:

    30 years ago we got $30 per bin of oranges. couldn’t make a living from it then.
    Plus was charged $100 per week to stay in a rotten workers ”cottage” in Waikerie. Try $65 per bin with free accommodation and enter the 21st century with a sustainable living wage.
    As to strawberry picking under the aussie sun… forget it. In Canada we had a moving shadehouse to shelter the pickers from the sun. We also picked at night with a headlamp.
    The conditions for season workers are Dickensian.
    Have a rethink. Its not the backpacker tax thats the problem. It the RS working conditions.

  3. Suzi says:

    Brettio – I believe Canada is fighting for a $15 minimum wage at the moment.

    It costs Australian farmers $25 an hour to employ people in horticulture on an hourly wage ($22.13 + 9.5% + workcover plus, plus plus…..)

    Let me pay the workers $15 and then I’d gladly buy a moving shadehouse to pick fruit.

    It is time the Australian public paid more for their fruit and vegetables – but they want cheap clothes and cheap, clean and green Australian produce.