Bipartisan stalemate deprives farmers of workers

Another harvest has come and gone, and agriculture’s acute labour shortage has deepened. Politicians continue to tinker with existing labour programs but they so far, lack the courage to deliver a realistic, comprehensive solution: an Agriculture Visa.

The farming sector’s frustration is palpable. The failure to act feels like a slap in the face to farmers, who want to provide jobs, be more productive, and to accelerate their already significant contribution to the nation. Is this not worth supporting?

There are at least four myths touted in defence of this inaction. In the midst of the federal election it’s worth considering these and the countervailing reality.

MYTH 1: No one can say what an Ag Visa would look like.

FACT: The NFF’s Ag Visa model was established more than 2 years ago.

The National Farmers’ Federation proposed Ag Visa model was finalised in 2017. Since then the NFF has shared the model with those with an interest in solving the farm sector’s labour challenge.

While the model has evolved based on input from government, politicians, bureaucrats, industry, unions and other stakeholders, its core tenants remain unchanged: flexibility and portability, robust coordination and accountability, a focus on fair workplaces, and numbers which match demonstrated need. More information can be found below.

MYTH: There is no workforce shortage or data to support the call for an Ag Visa.

FACT: While precise figures remain elusive, the problem is documented.

It is true that the exact size of the farm labour shortage is elusive. It’s unsurprising given the remote and isolated nature of much farm work; the fact that jobs are not always advertised through usual sources; that the need is often seasonal and unpredictable; and that the workforce is often transient and — unwelcome though it may be — occasionally from illegitimate or undocumented sources.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of studies and data about the size of the problem. For example:

  • The NFF’s 2018 National Farm Workforce Survey shows that 80% of farmers experience serious difficulty finding workers.
  • In 2010, the Australian Farm Institute estimated the labour shortfall by 2018 would be 102,438 full-time equivalent workers.
  • The Victorian agrifood sector, ranks labour shortage as the number one issue hampering its performance.
  • University of Adelaide Professor Joanna Howe found that 25% of growers experience difficulty recruiting and, as a consequence, leave produce unpicked.
  • Australian Dairy Farmers’ reports that labour challenges cost the dairy sector up to $364 million each year.

MYTH: The farming sector wants an Ag Visa so farmers can profit from cheap foreign labour.

FACT:  Farmers prefer to hire locals, because otherwise they’re forced to pay the additional costs of hiring migrant workers but for many Australian workers, farm work isn’t what they are looking for.

Farmers would be jubilant if Australians applied for the jobs. Not only is better for their local communities, it would actually be a lot easier and more affordable. Take the cost of the Seasonal Worker Program: each worker brought in from the Pacific to pick vegetables costs $1,600 more per season than a local. That’s in addition to the roughly $2,000 in upfront expenses, and considerable time and energy involved in engaging overseas workers. While an Ag Visa would be more economical, it could never be as cheap or easy as simply engaging an Aussie through www.Seek.com.

But perhaps the suggestion is that farmer’s should just offer a higher wages. That call is understandable, but bear in mind a few realities.

Firstly, the biggest obstacle to getting Australians to work on farms isn’t the pay, but the attitude to farm work. If parliamentary and academic studies to the contrary aren’t proof enough, then just look at the disappointing failure of the Seasonal Worker Incentive Trial. As any farmer will tell you, farm work remains difficult, sometimes mucky, and always physically demanding. Work in the air-conditioned comfort of an office or pub — or just staying home — is simply more appealing.

But even if higher wages would attract more workers, the reality is that farms can’t afford them. Farmers aren’t ‘big business’ fat cats sitting on massive profits. For the most part they’re small family businesses. Farmers are price-takers who operate on tight margins in difficult economic and environmental circumstances. And, according to International Labour Organisation data, Australia farm workers are the second highest paid in the world, and the wage bill is a farm’s highest cash cost. Where farmers can pay more they generally do — surveys indicate that farms routinely pays above award wages — but most farms are already at their limit.

NFF President Fiona Simson
NFF President Fiona Simson.

MYTH: A dedicated Ag Visa will allow farmers to exploit their workforce without scrutiny.

FACT: The NFF’s proposed Ag Visa is designed from the ground up to address the problem of migrant worker exploitation.

While the mistreatment of foreign workers is not a problem unique to the farm sector, it’s undeniably present. And while the size of the problem is uncertain, we know that it’s more than a little tax avoidance or a few accidental underpayments. It is a basic issue of human rights and dignity, and must be addressed by the farming sector for that reason alone. But the problem also has commercial ramifications. Farmers who want to play and pay fair — the vast majority of the sector — are at a commercial disadvantage to those who exploit their workforce.

The NFF’s sees the exploitation as tangentially related to, if not an actual symptom of, the sector’s labour shortage problem. To us, it’s clear that any solution which seeks to address the shortage issue must also tackle the issue of workplace exploitation. So when the NFF talks about an Ag Visa, we mean a visa with tight controls and assurances.

For example, it would feature a dedicated, industry led sponsoring body which monitors the workers’ place of employment and wellbeing, provides them with assistance, and maintains contact with employers and regulators.

Furthermore, under our model only farmers who have a demonstrated commitment to treating their workforce fairly would eligible to engage Ag Visa workers, while the workers themselves would be versed in their rights and responsibilities. And importantly, unlike the current labour migration programs, a worker would not be bound to an employer irrespective of treatment and conditions.

To reinforce that position we see the program having a substantial union participation — they may even be part of the sponsoring body — and would ultimately be monitored by and answerable to government.

Right now, farmers (and regional Australia) are the victims of a policy stalemate, fuelled by left and right philosophical hang-ups. We are not interested in these. We have jobs to provide, productivity to be realised and all we want is mechanism to deliver both. Surely, that is not too much to ask, is it?

Fiona Simson

Fiona Simson

Fiona Simson is the President of the National Farmers' Federation and a farmer from the Liverpool Plains.

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