As the seasonal worker shortage worsens, the National Farmers Federation (NFF) has welcomed the new national agricultural workers code but criticised the states that have not signed on.
- Industry groups have welcomed new agricultural worker movement code
- But say a three-week delay will cause problems for farmers needing workers now
- They says there is no clear roadmap for peak demand period just a few weeks away
At a meeting of National Cabinet on September 4, the New South Wales, Victorian, South Australian, Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory governments agreed to adopt the code.
NFF President Fiona Simpson said it was a good step forward “from where we were last week”, but she warned it was not enough to solve the problem.
“We have five premiers who we applaud for their leadership and for… recognising that agriculture is a national industry”, but she is critical of Western Australia Tasmania and Queensland for ‘going it alone’ which she said was a “blinkered approach”.
How it works
Those states and territories that adopted the new code agreed to implement within 15 business days of the meeting,
Under the code workers will need to have a border permit, proof of identity and a place of residence, and they may need to use hand sanitiser and wear protective equipment like a face mask and gloves.
They will have to keep records of their movements, who they have been in contact with, and details of where they have stayed and travelled.
The requirements will also differ according to the level of risk.
Agricultural work is often outdoors where the risk of disease transmission is lower, but some workplaces such as meat and food processing establishments have been the source of significant outbreaks, so they are high risk.
Grain producers glad of a pathway forward
Grain Producers Australia Chairman Andrew Wiedemann welcomed the code but said finding enough workers to fill harvest vacancies was still a challenge.
“Sadly I don’t believe we [have] that covered at the moment,” Mr Wiedemann said.
Tens of thousands of workers will be needed across the country for the upcoming grain harvest which is just weeks away.
“We’re still getting calls from farmers looking to find workers.
“We’ve been working with companies like Qantas redeploying some of their people around Australia to try and help some of their staff that have been laid off.”
He said the new code was, however, an improvement over the previous arrangements.
Harvest contractors say 15-day delay ‘way too long’
The Australian Custom Harvesters Association said the code should be made available online immediately.
National President Rod Gribble said three weeks (15 business days) was ‘way too long’ given harvesting had already commenced in central Queensland.
He said workers outside the bubble areas were still being forced to fly to hotspot cities like Melbourne and Sydney and then quarantine for 14 days.
He said some contractors were unsure if their skilled staff could get to interstate locations to run harvesting equipment, so they were pulling out due to the uncertainty.
“Queensland is a basket case right now.”
Apple and stone fruit industry look ahead anxiously
Greg Mouat, a director of Batlow Apples on the NSW–Victorian border, said he was already experiencing issues with labour.
“Some of our workers are in Victoria and need to get back into NSW and recent border changes haven’t helped.”
The critical time for apple and cherry growers Greg will be in November–December when 2,000 to 3,000 pickers will be needed in his area, while another 3,000 to 5,000 will be needed in growing areas around Young and Orange.
He said the ability for seasonal workers to move freely was very important for growers.
Getting Australians to work on farm
Sydney fresh food exporter Matthew Watt is concerned about the labour shortage as his business relies on the supply of fresh product from around Australia.
He said his suppliers were finding it difficult.
He warned there were huge crops that would have to be harvested in just a few weeks time and with 60,000 fewer backpackers in the country that was a huge challenge.
The Federal Government is hoping Australians will fill the gap left by backpackers and Pacific Workers, but apple grower Greg Mouat said they were not reliable.
Instead he will be depending on contract labour and a team of Nepalese workers on foreign or student visas.
“They work hard and are generally saving money to send home to family.”
Despite the problems NFF president Fiona Simson said there was some hope.
A pilot scheme is bringing in workers from Vanuatu to Darwin for the first time in months, and the NFF is looking at ways to encourage young Australians to earn cash working on farms.
“We’re approaching the Government to see if there are some incentives they can put in place to encourage young people can take a gap year in the bush.
She said the NFF had a website called Farmhub listing seasonal work.