Failure of farm labour incentives threatens harvest

Attempts to encourage Australians who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic to take up farm work appear to be failing, despite large cash incentives.

Dec 07, 2020, updated Dec 07, 2020
These strawberries were left to die on the vine because of a shortage of harvest workers. (Photo: ABC)

These strawberries were left to die on the vine because of a shortage of harvest workers. (Photo: ABC)

Attempts to encourage Australians who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic to take up farm work appear to be failing, despite cash incentives to help cover accommodation and the cost of moving to rural areas.

The nation’s horticulture industry is projecting a shortfall of 26,000 fruit and vegetable pickers this harvest season due to the shutting of international borders that has kept many working holiday-makers locked out.

According to figures from the Federal Department of Employment, a program that offers Australians who move to regional areas to take up harvest jobs has only attracted 148 workers in the month it has been operating.

The Relocation Assistance to Take Up a Job program offers workers up to $6,000 to cover things like transport, accommodation, and uniform — provided the employee works a minimum of six weeks.

The nation’s horticulture industry is projecting a shortfall of 26,000 workers this harvest season. (Photo: ABC News: Nathan Morris)

“The numbers really aren’t surprising,” said Tyson Cattle from horticulture lobby group AusVeg.

“We’re supportive of those sorts of initiatives, and we’ll always look to employ Australians first and foremost, but trying to engage with the domestic worker audience just hasn’t worked.”

The ABC understands that a similar initiative in Queensland, the Back to Work in Agriculture Incentive Scheme, which offers workers who relocate up to $1500 in rebates, has only had one successful applicant in the two months it has been operating with 30 people in the process of applying.

Despite that, Queensland Agriculture Minister Mark Furner said the program — initially announced as a trial for two regions in the south-east of the state — will now be extended.

“We are pleased with the early stages of the incentive scheme and we are now making it available to farms statewide,” Furner said.

However, the lack of Australian workers, as well as international ones, has farmers like Queensland Granite Belt apple and strawberry grower Nathan Baronio worried.

“Unfortunately we haven’t seen a significant amount of people taking advantage of the current schemes,” he said.

“In about 10 days’ time we are going to need an extra 60 to 70 workers and I don’t think we’re going to be able to do that at all.

“We already saw this in October, but when you don’t have enough staff you walk away from the crop.

“We walked away from six and a half acres of strawberries. It resulted in crop loss of about $500,000 to $600,000.”

Bureaucratic nightmare for farmers

Lee Fox, a grain grower in Victoria’s Wimmera region, recently signed on a new worker through the Federal Government’s relocation assistance scheme and got the worker’s accommodation and relocation costs covered.

However, Fox said it took her a month to organise the paperwork with the relevant Government departments and labour service providers — a problem for many farmers who often source many of their causal workers at the last minute, depending on when the crop is ready.

“I really am very doubtful that many farmers have access to this scheme because the paperwork and time involved in chasing how you access the program from both ends is exhausting,” she said.

“We are being hit at a time where we’re facing labour shortages. We don’t have the time to be spending weeks chasing things up.”

Despite the bureaucratic nightmare, the worker she employed, Wayne Russel, said the money has made his move from Melbourne to the Wimmera a lot easier.

“The allowance will be covering some fuel receipts and work clothes, but the major expense will be accommodation, which for me will be about $4,500. I’m very grateful for it,” he said.

Russel was stood down from his job as a Qantas A380 pilot as the pandemic halted international travel and has embraced the new machinery he will now pilot — harvesters and boom sprays.

Wayne Russel was stood down from his job as a pilot with Qantas and has taken up farm work. (Photo: ABC Rural: Angus Verley)

“This is allowing me to develop new skills and gain experience, and depending on how aviation pans out in the future I could potentially use this [farm experience] either seasonally or full time in the future,” he said.

Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said cash incentives for Australian workers were only one part of the solution to the rural labour-hire problem, and said states should be focused on allowing more Pacific islander workers into the country to help fill the gap.

“We haven’t relied on it [the relocation incentive scheme], we have made sure that we have had complementary measures to try and tackle this in any way we can with domestic supply as well as international supply [of workers],” he said.

“It’s now really the responsibility of the states to bring these people [Pacific workers] in if we can’t get Australians to undertake it.

“The pressure needs to be on to act and act quickly.”

Western Australian has had more success with it’s own incentive program, the Primary Industries Workers’ Regional Travel and Support Scheme, which allows workers who go bush for a job to claim a $40 a night accommodation rebate and a travel allowance of up to $500.

The scheme has had 212 successful applicants since it launched two months ago, and 251 are still pending.

The ABC understands the South Australian Government is finalising a $5.5 million plan of its own to provide relocation assistance to workers.

Tough sell to Aussie workers

Even before COVID-19, attempts to get out-of-work Australians to take up farm jobs through cash incentives have often flopped.

The Coalition Government’s $27.5 million Seasonal Work Incentives Trial, which offered out-of-work Australians on welfare an extra $5,000 per year to pick crops, found placements for fewer than 500 people despite budgeting for 7,600 positions.

The Victorian and Western Australian agriculture ministers have been lobbying the Federal Government to let people who are receiving JobSeeker payments to continue to get that money even if they are working in low-paying farm jobs.

WA Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan said she believed it would help resolve the potential labour shortage crisis this harvest, but was frustrated the Federal Government had not yet considered the proposal.

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“We think that it’s not going to cost any additional money, and if we don’t do it we simply aren’t going to get the people out there doing the job,” MacTiernan said.

“Who knows, it might be the thing that eventually inspires people. This might be a long-term alternative [to the farm labour shortage problem].”

Federal Labor agriculture spokesperson Ed Husic backed the calls by his state labour colleagues.

“If the states have put forward this idea in terms of JobSeeker I can see the attractiveness of it,” he said.

“Can the Government just please get out and tell us what their view is?”

Littleproud said it was a “long bow” to expect dual payments, through JobSeeker and farm work, to be enough for urban jobseekers to uproot themselves.

He said many unemployed people were not prepared to travel hundreds or thousands of kilometres from their home for work due to things like family commitments.

“This is why we’re not putting all our eggs in a basket of incentives [programs] that we’re putting up because I think it will have only so much success because of the demographic of our society,” Littleproud said.

The Agriculture Minister said cash incentive programs were only meant to complement existing measures to address the potential worker shortage, such as the restart of the Seasonal Worker Program and Pacific Labour Scheme.

Call for Pacific travel bubble

AusVeg is calling on the Federal Government to consider including Pacific island nations with no COVID-19 cases in the trans-Tasman travel bubble that already guarantees quarantine-free travel for New Zealanders coming to Australia.

Analysis by consultancy firm Ernst and Young puts the worker shortage nationwide at 26,000 — a gap which AusVeg says could be better and more quickly filled by some of the 22,000 visa-ready workers from Pacific Island nations who are being held up by various quarantine restrictions.

Tasmania will receive 700 seasonal workers this month from Pacific nations. (Photo: ABC Rural: Laurissa Smith)

“We think that is a step in the right direction,” the firm said.

While Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Samoa have recorded recent COVID-19 cases, countries like Nauru, Tonga, Kiribati, Micronesia, Palau, and Tuvalu have not.

Currently, Pacific island workers are allowed into the country provided they quarantine as per the rules of the state they are arriving in.

However, who pays for that — the worker, the farmer, the state government, or a combination — has been a source of contention which has delayed significant planeloads of workers.

“The states have agreed that they want to handle their own quarantine process … but what that’s done is really add another layer of bureaucracy in terms of hoops in which growers and industry needs to jump through in order to bring in these workers from COVID-free nations,” AusVeg’s Tyson Cattle said.

Tasmania is due to receive 700 workers this month after the State Government there agreed to foot the bill for hotel quarantine, while workers and farmers will share the cost of the chartered planes to get them there.

The Home Affairs Department said that 953 Pacific workers have arrived in Australia as part of the Seasonal Worker Program and Pacific Labour Scheme since they restarted in August, far short of the 26,000 shortfall the horticulture industry has predicted.

– ABC / national regional and rural reporters Marty McCarthy and Lucy Barbour

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