Fruit and veg growers ‘at the pointy end’ of labour shortages as government incentives fall short of industry’s needs | Ralph-Lauren

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Shoppers are being warned to expect higher produce prices at the checkout in the coming months after government programs failed to attract enough workers to address the industry’s ongoing farm labour shortages.

In mid-2020, the horticulture industry warned it was on track to face a shortfall of 26,000 seasonal workers by March due to international border closures that have locked out many working holiday-makers.

But the latest government data shows incentives by the Federal and Queensland governments, aimed at attracting more Australians to take up picking jobs, have only had a combined uptake of about 500 people.

A spokesman for the Federal Employment Minister, Michaelia Cash, said the Government’s Harvest Trail relocation assistance program — offering up to $6,000 to Australians who move to regional areas for harvest jobs — attracted 453 workers between its inception in November and December 31.

Queensland’s Agriculture Minister Mark Furner said about 60 people had applied for payments of up to $1,500 through a similar State Government scheme.

Uptake ‘underwhelming’

For growers on Queensland’s Granite Belt, the effects of the shortage are intensifying as the region’s peak harvest period, from February to April, draws nearer.

“I think we’re going to see increased pressure across the board on our available labour,” Granite Belt Growers Association President, Angus Ferrier, said.

A man in a green shirt and a hat stands in front of a fence and paddocks.
Farmer and Granite Belt Growers Association president Angus Ferrier on his stone fruit orchard in southern Queensland.(ABC Landline: Courtney Wilson)

“It’s pretty underwhelming to think that we’ve [just] cracked 500 Aussies who are willing to relocate to regional areas to fill these roles.”

Mr Ferrier said he was not surprised by the low uptake of the programs, as the industry had been sceptical of their ability to raise the required numbers from the beginning.

“I believe it’s becoming undeniable that Australians are either unable or unwilling to fill these agricultural roles,” he said.

“That’s absolutely not a criticism of the people in our capital cities who don’t want to take up these jobs.

“All it does is highlight why we rely on international labour who come here specifically to work in our industry and are willing to follow the seasons around the country.”

Worry over ‘last hurdle’

Pozieres apple grower Daniel Nicoletti is thinning his trees in preparation for next month’s harvest, which he anticipates will be extra busy due to the labour shortage.

“We’ve managed to find enough people so far but come harvest time when everybody else is wanting extra people we are concerned that there’s going to be a shortage,” he said.

“I suppose we’ll work more hours and … somehow we’ll try to shave another level of efficiency off the job.”

Man in a blue work shirt and cap standing in an apple orchard.
Daniel Nicoletti is worried there’ll be even more competition for labour from next month, as the region’s peak harvest season starts.(Supplied: Daniel Nicoletti)

Mr Nicoletti said he had also had several offers from Australians keen to help out on the farm for a week or so with their families.

“It gives you heart to know that there’s people out there who care,” he said.

“But it’s difficult to train people for one week’s work.

Australians not the answer, industry says

Angus Ferrier believes the answer lies in a designated agricultural worker’s visa and an expansion of the Federal Government’s Seasonal Worker Program, which allows workers from Pacific Island nations to take up farm jobs in Australia.

The program is currently operating at a reduced capacity as federal and state governments continue to argue over quarantine arrangements.

“The timeframe that this is moving in is just too slow and too unreliable,” Mr Ferrier said.

“We’re now at the pointy end where the effects of this problem are really starting to be felt on the ground.”

Wine grapes on a vine.
Wine grape harvest is also yet to start on the Granite Belt.(ABC 7:30)

On the Granite Belt, those effects include higher wages for workers as employers fight to stay competitive.

“We’re hearing of plenty of horticulturalists paying in the order of 15 per cent over the industry award,” Mr Ferrier said.

“That’s the sort of cost that is being carried by these businesses and eventually we believe that will show up as an increased price at the checkout.”

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