Bringing in the harvest

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The debacle arising from the federal government’s on-again-off-again changes to backpacker tax rates and visa classes over the last couple of years has resulted in serious labour shortages for seasonal and short-term work such as fruit picking and packing. Many areas reported a rapid decline in backpacker numbers last season – in some areas, it is estimated by as much as 40%.

Without a reliable workforce, growers end up leaving crops unpicked. And that’s not an outcome anyone wants to see.

Amid this serious labour shortage, agriculture groups have been calling for a special agricultural visa to lift the flow of foreign workers, including from Asia.

And, initially, the response from the federal government was positive. However, the usual gaggle of armchair experts rapidly came out of the woodwork, arguing that farmers should be replacing foreign workers and backpackers with people on the dole. This week the government backed away from the new visa proposal, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison instead launched an initiative to move local workers into farm jobs.

Speaking in support of the new program, Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Michael McCormack said “the government is working to ensure there is a strategic and targeted ­labour force to help farmers and country communities pick the fruit and finish harvest when and where they need it,”.

On farms around the country, eyes rolled over breakfast tables and growers mentally started re-programming their seasonal work schedules.

It is clear from this outcome that the government simply does not understand the reality of a modern intensive farm.

In their world view, farmers are employers of last resort. They should have to take anyone, no matter their qualifications or their work ethic. Yes, of course, send your cannon fodder down on the farm; we’ll absorb them in the paddock somewhere, out of sight, out of mind, off your agenda.

Well, it doesn’t quite work like that.

You see, farmers are actually running businesses in a very competitive environment and with extremely low margins. They’re lean and mean because they have to be. Properties that once supported 20 or 30 staff are now run by the farmer, their spouse and perhaps one of the kids and a part-time employee. When they do require casual labour, they need the best they can get.

They want reliable people who turn up every day on time, who know what they are doing, who work fast, who don’t get distracted by their mobile phone or Facebook, who understand that farms are dangerous places, and who appreciate the importance of the relationship between the work they do and the outcome for the farmer. They don’t want people who don’t want to be there, and who need constant supervision. They don’t want people who turn up stoned. They don’t want people who aren’t prepared for physical work, or who can’t (or won’t) follow basic safety instructions.

The reality is that jobs such as fruit picking are not unskilled occupations. They require skill, speed, experience, and pride in the final product. This is even more important today because often what they package in the orchard or the paddock is the final form of presentation to the market. In other words, this is what determines the end price a farmer will receive for their products.

Furthermore, these are not full-time jobs – by its very nature, the work is seasonal. And work is often located in rural areas far from concentrations of unemployed people. The costs and disruption of relocation and transport for short-term jobs are huge disincentives, especially those who may have families.

These are the reasons why foreign workers and backpackers dominate in this sector. They are not interested in full-time jobs or a career; they are driven by the incentive to work fast and well, and they are often experienced at what they do.

Governments – and politicians – cannot abrogate their responsibilities for dealing with important social issues like unemployment. There are many options for addressing the significant issues identified in ensuring we encourage those who can work to do so; but, at the same time, maintaining a resilient and sustainable welfare safety net.

Farmers are very aware of the key role they play in supporting local communities – but they are running businesses and it is not their job to deliver social welfare outcomes.

That’s something for which we all need to take responsibility.



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