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Farm labour incentives failing and the result could be crops left unharvested

December 7th, 2020 | | employment

Attempts to encourage Australians who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic to take up farm work appear to be failing, despite cash incentives to help cover accommodation and the cost of moving to rural areas.

Key points:

  • Figures show cash incentives to get Australians into farm work are failing
  • The horticulture industry is predicting a shortfall of 26,000 workers
  • There are calls for a Pacific nations travel bubble

The nation’s horticulture industry is projecting a shortfall of 26,000 fruit and vegetable pickers this harvest season due to the shutting of international borders that has kept many working holiday-makers locked out. 

According to figures from the Federal Department of Employment, a program that offers Australians who move to regional areas to take up harvest jobs has only attracted 148 workers in the month it has been operating.

The Relocation Assistance to Take Up a Job program offers workers up to $6,000 to cover things like transport, accommodation, and uniform — provided the employee works a minimum of six weeks.

“The numbers really aren’t surprising,” said Tyson Cattle from horticulture lobby group AusVeg.

“We’re supportive of those sorts of initiatives, and we’ll always look to employ Australians first and foremost, but trying to engage with the domestic worker audience just hasn’t worked.”

Two men wearing high vis and black caps load the back of a truck with crates full of strawberries.
The nation’s horticulture industry is projecting a shortfall of 26,000 workers this harvest season.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

A similar initiative in Queensland, the Back to Work in Agriculture Incentive Scheme which offers workers who relocate up to $1,500 in rebates, has only had one successful applicant in the two months it has been operating with 30 people in the process of applying.

Despite that, Queensland Agriculture Minister Mark Furner said the program — initially announced as a trial for two regions in the south-east of the state — will now be extended.

“We are pleased with the early stages of the incentive scheme and we are now making it available to farms statewide,” Mr Furner said.

However, the lack of Australian workers, as well as international ones, has farmers like Queensland Granite Belt apple and strawberry grower Nathan Baronio worried.

“Unfortunately we haven’t seen a significant amount of people taking advantage of the current schemes,” he said.

“In about 10 days’ time we are going to need an extra 60 to 70 workers and I don’t think we’re going to be able to do that at all.

“We already saw this in October, but when you don’t have enough staff you walk away from the crop.

“We walked away from six and a half acres of strawberries. It resulted in crop loss of about $500,000 to $600,000.”

A man wearing a blue tshirt and cap stands in the middle of rows of strawberries, with a strawberry in hand.
Applethorpe grower Nathan Baronio says he’ll struggle to get the workers he needs in the coming weeks.(ABC News: Nathan Morris)

Bureaucratic nightmare for farmers

Lee Fox, a grain grower in Victoria’s Wimmera region, recently signed on a new worker through the Federal Government’s relocation assistance scheme and got the worker’s accommodation and relocation costs covered.

However, Ms Fox said it took her a month to organise the paperwork with the relevant Government departments and labour service providers — a problem for many farmers who often source many of their causal workers at the last minute, depending on when the crop is ready. 

“I really am very doubtful that many farmers have access to this scheme because the paperwork and time involved in chasing how you access the program from both ends is exhausting,” she said.

“We are being hit at a time where we’re facing labour shortages. We don’t have the time to be spending weeks chasing things up.”

A woman with red hair, blue shirt and orange necklace stands in a canola crop that's ready to harvest.
Wimmera grain grower Lee Fox says incentives for worker schemes are a bureaucratic nightmare.(ABC Rural: Angus Verley)

Despite the bureaucratic nightmare, the worker she employed, Wayne Russel, said the money has made his move from Melbourne to the Wimmera a lot easier.

“The allowance will be covering some fuel receipts and work clothes, but the major expense will be accommodation, which for me will be about $4,500. I’m very grateful for it,” he said.

Mr Russel was stood down from his job as a Qantas A380 pilot as the pandemic halted international travel and has embraced the new machinery he will now pilot — harvesters and boom sprays.

“This is allowing me to develop new skills and gain experience, and depending on how aviation pans out in the future I could potentially use this [farm experience] either seasonally or full time in the future,” he said.

A man wears a blue shirt and cap, sitting behind the steering wheel of a large piece of farm machinery.
Wayne Russel was stood down from his job as a pilot with Qantas and has taken up farm work.(ABC Rural: Angus Verley)

Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said cash incentives for Australian workers were only one part of the solution to the rural labour hire problem, and said states should be focussed on allowing more Pacific islander workers into the country to help fill the gap.

“We haven’t relied on it [the relocation incentive scheme], we have made sure that we have had complementary measures to try and tackle this in any way we can with domestic supply as well as international supply [of workers],” he said. 

“It’s now really the responsibility of the states to bring these people [Pacific workers] in if we can’t get Australians to undertake it. 

“The pressure needs to be on to act and act quickly.”

Western Australian has had more success with it’s own incentive program, the Primary Industries Workers’ Regional Travel and Support Scheme, which allows workers who go bush for a job to claim a $40 a night accommodation rebate and a travel allowance of up to $500.

The scheme has had 212 successful applicants since it launched two months ago, and 251 are still pending.

Source: ABC

Sourced by Mike Barrow