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Farmers fear worker shortage due to COVID-19 restrictions despite rising unemployment

July 30th, 2020 | | backpacker

The Federal Government says short-term farm work is impractical for unemployed Australians, so it is seeking international solutions amid COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Key points:

  • Farmers warned of severe labour shortages in coming months due to COVID-19 restrictions
  • Agriculture Minister says unemployed Australians aren’t a practical replacement for foreign workers
  • Australia’s unemployment is set to reach 10 per cent

The farm lobby group National Farmers Federation has warned that farmers will run out of workers this year.

Following a virtual meeting of state and territory agriculture ministers on Wednesday, Deputy Nationals Leader David Littleproud told the ABC he was working with his Cabinet colleagues to find a solution to the farm worker shortage.

When travel restrictions were introduced earlier this year, there were more than 140,000 backpackers and more than 7,000 Pacific Islanders in Australia with working visas.

But backpacker numbers alone have slumped to 85,000, while unemployment has surged and is expected to reach 10 per cent.

“Even when our social security payment for the dole was $550 a fortnight, we couldn’t get people off the couch to go and pick fruit,” Mr Littleproud said.

“There’s a real aversion from the Australian workforce to go and pick fruit.

“We have, for some time, relied on an overseas workforce, and that means that we are going to have to work through measures to try and support that.

“But Australians have not wanted to do it, and unless they’re going to do it very soon, particularly when we’ve doubled Newstart rate and in fact we’ve got JobKeeper, it’s a very hard incentive to get someone off the couch to travel a couple of thousand kilometres to pick fruit for six weeks, then turn around and come back.”

Workers bent over picking field strawberries in the sun
Strawberry growers in Queensland worry about where their workforce will come from.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Border closures shut out farm workers

State border closures have also impeded fruit pickers and shearers, with New South Wales refusing to permit seasonal workers entering that state from Victoria.

“There are lots of people in New South Wales that need jobs so I don’t feel there is a labour shortage in NSW at all, if people want to come in and want to do that seasonal work, they’ve got to be subjected to that 14-day isolation period,” Premier Gladys Berejiklian said last week.

Mr Littleproud said while he wanted to see unemployed Australians get back to work, short-term farm jobs are not always practical.

“I really do want to see Australians that are on unemployed benefits go and work — I just understand more than anyone, living in regional Queensland, that doesn’t happen,” Mr Littleproud said.

“Practically, people aren’t going to travel.”

Unemployed take issue with minister’s comments

The Australian Unemployed Workers Union has slammed Mr Littleproud’s comments as “disgusting and not based in reality,” saying it was an attack on unemployed people.

“We know, based on statistics, there aren’t people sitting around, skiving off, declining employment either before this crisis or during it,” AUWU spokeswoman Kristen O’Connell said.

Ms O’Connell said unemployed people and foreigners often didn’t want to take short-term work on farms, for a number of reasons.

“We don’t think anyone would be happy, whether they’re on unemployment payments or they’re migrants, to take those jobs because we know those jobs are rife with abuse, wage theft, that people are put in unsafe situations and not paid the kind of wages that Australians expect and don’t have the conditions Australians expect,” she said.

A report by the University of Adelaide last year found that worker exploitation had become “an established norm” in some parts of Australia’s horticulture sector.

Ms O’Connell called for farmers to “pay good wages and assure people that their jobs will be safe” by providing contracts, rather than employing casuals, noting it wasn’t always practical for people on unemployment benefits to move to take up work.

“The minister did acknowledge that there are big barriers for people to accessing these jobs, which is one reason we were so offended by his inference that people are choosing not to take these jobs.”

International solutions

In April, the Federal Government allowed Pacific Island seasonal workers and holiday makers already in Australia to extend their visas.

But with a return to better seasons after years of drought, greater demand for farm workers across the country is expected, especially during spring and summer.

Mr Littleproud said the Government was working on new measures to help meet that demand.

“We’re trying to work with areas globally, that have been able to address COVID-19 to open up opportunities there,” he said.

“That’s not just because we’ve got demand — we have to work with them and their own sovereignty to get an appreciation if we can come to some agreement and that work is being done.

“My cabinet colleagues and I are … [also] working through the diplomatic channels and the complexities of that to try and get some more solutions to try and give us even more comfort.”

A worker places a watermelon on a conveyer belt leading to a tractor
The National Farmers Federation is urging farmers to develop a Plan B for attracting workers.(ABC News: Brad Marsellos)

What’s Plan B?

It comes as the National Farmers Federation launched a campaign to help match farmers with workers.

“We’re urging farmers to take the time to develop ‘Plan B‘ for their farm’s labour needs, based on an assumption that they will have limited to no access to a foreign workforce,” NFF chief executive Tony Mahar said.

“We know the part time and seasonal nature of some farm work doesn’t suit everyone.

“However. we urge jobseekers to keep an open mind about what’s on offer.”

Mr Mahar said in some cases, workers on farms could earn up to $1,000 per week.

ED: Has anyone got some comments or solutions they wish to share?

Source: ABC

Sourced by Mike Barrow