Australia’s Agriculture Minister has all but given up on trying to convince young and unemployed people to move to the bush for farming jobs.
Instead, David Littleproud is piling pressure on the Victorian and other State governments to allow foreign workers in to harvest crops.
That tactic has already been employed by WA’s embattled fruit and vegetable industry, with 154 workers from Vanuatu recently leaving hotel quarantine in Perth and travelling to 10 farms, including in Gingin, Pinjarra, Myalup, Harvey, Mt Barker, Pemberton, Manjimup, Katanning and Narrogin.
A further 162 workers from Vanuatu are just days from completing their two-week quarantine before joining harvests across the State.
The Federal Government had launched an incentive program that pays $6000 relocation bonuses to local workers who take up picking jobs. But only about 350 people have signed up to the scheme.
Mr Littleproud concedes many Australians simply don’t want to work on farms.
“We’ve got to be honest, even before COVID we were struggling, farmers were struggling to try and incentivise workers to go and come out from Australia to do this,” he told ABC radio.
“We’ve also incentivised young Australians, saying it’s an accelerated pathway to Austudy and Abstudy if you go and work in agriculture.”
The agriculture sector has recently been bruised by a series of exposes on underpayment and exploitation.
But the Minister puts the disinterest in farm work down to a shift in societal trends.
“When I grew up, my mum wouldn’t let me stay at home on school holidays, I had to go and pick rockmelons and watermelons and I graduated to being a cotton chipper,” Mr Littleproud said.
“Now they graduate to going to work in cafes and being baristas on the school and university holidays, and we’ve got to understand society has changed, but that doesn’t help farmers.
“They don’t have the luxury to sit around and wait. When their crop is ripe, they need to get it from the paddock to your plate.”
Mr Littleproud is shifting his focus to importing Pacific and seasonal workers.
Mr Littleproud said people from rural areas were beginning to feel like “forgotten Australians”.
“This is a failure of federation and unfortunately it’s regional and rural Australia that has hurt the most from it.”
“These farmers, many of whom were coming out of drought and looking at their first year of significant income, and it has been stripped away from them because of indecision.”