This year thousands of mangoes, strawberries, mandarins and mushrooms will never make it to market. Why? Because farmers can’t find the workers they need to harvest them.
Grain growers, dairy farmers and pork producers are also constrained by an ongoing worker crisis.
The inability to find enough workers to pick and pack produce; milk cows; and drive harvesters, costs Australian agriculture millions of dollars in lost productivity every year. The flow on effect of this is a loss of prosperity for our regional communities and our national economy.
The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) wants to see Australians filling Aussie farm jobs. However, lots of farm work is labour intensive, not available all year around and therefore not suited to some Australian job seekers.
As a result, many farmers rely on a combination of Australian and foreign workers to get the job done. Typically, international workers take up farm work via a Working Holidaymaker Visa (often used by backpackers) or the Seasonal Worker Programme, which provides employment opportunities to citizens of Pacific countries and Timor Leste. While both programmes are successful to an extent, they cannot adequately meet agriculture’s labour needs.
Use the map below to explore how this issue is impacting real farmers from around Australia.
The Federal Government has confirmed its support for a dedicated-agricultural visa (ag visa), as proposed by the National Farmers’ Federation. The visa would match international workers with the jobs farmers need filled.
The programme would diversify the countries from which workers can be sourced, and allow visa holders to move between different farm businesses – depending where and when the work is available.
International workers with a genuine interest in agricultural work would be encouraged to apply for an Ag Visa and be assisted to transition from unskilled work to skilled positions.
An Agricultural Visa is intended to complement the Working Holidaymaker Visa, the Seasonal Worker Programme and the many initiatives designed to see more Australians take up farm jobs.
At the heart of the agricultural visa program would be to build a long term farm workforce, including pathways to permanent residency for successful Ag Visa holders and their families.
Call to action
To fulfil its Ag Visa promise, the Government needs more information about the number and type farm jobs currently going unfilled.
The NFF is calling on every farm employer to provide their labour requirements by completing the 1-page Harvest Form hosted by the National Harvest Labour Information Service.
The form takes less than 10 minutes to complete, and can be found here. You can also call 1800 062 332 to register your vacancies.
Registering your vacancies will help us build the case for a lasting solutions to agriculture’s labour crisis.
A survey recently conducted by the NFF indicates that 80% of farmers experience serious difficulty finding workers at varying points in the year – a figure which is dramatically up from the 37% nationwide shortage reported in 2014. More than half of the respondents cited labour shortages as a cause of significant financial loss.
Labour shortages are occurring for a number of reasons. There’s a general lack of interest in farm work within the domestic labour force. The work is often in isolated locations, is physically-demanding, and it is not typically viewed as a long-term career option.
Work in the agriculture sector has several complexities which make it difficult for farmers to secure adequate and appropriate labour. Harvests are typically sporadic and unpredictable. Factors beyond a farmer’s control, such as weather, soil and climate all have a substantial impact on harvest, and there are often small windows for produce to be harvested before it spoils. The labour needs of farmers intensify over harvest season, often by as much as 500%, and the variables dictating the crop make it hard to match suitable labour to the work.
The creation of a sustainable labour force for the sector is a significant problem, and is threatening to curtail agriculture’s growth.
Unlike the current working visas which allow migrants to work on farms, an Ag Visa program would be designed to address the labour challenges specific to the farm sector.
Its key features are:
- Visa-holders can work for up to one year, without being tied to one grower (unlike the Seasonal Worker Programme), although the person may have an industry-based sponsor for permanency purposes.
- There is no limit to the number of return visits allowed for workers, meaning they can return year after year (creating positive relations and workforce continuity for growers).
*It should be noted that the number of visas issued per annum will be established in consultation with industry and will be based on hard data.
An important feature of the Ag Visa is that only growers who can demonstrate their compliance with the law will have access to the program.
Reports of the mistreatment or exploitation of farm workers continue to embattle the sector, and these stories cannot be ignored. Furthermore, an unfortunate reality facing the sector is that due to a shortage of “legitimate” workers, farmers are relying – often to their discontent – on undocumented workers. The NFF sees the Ag Visa as a way of addressing this problem, via the creation of a culture of compliance.
The first steps in protecting overseas workers is ensuring that they have entered Australia via legal and legitimate means, are working in accordance with visa conditions, and that their presence in the Australian workforce is transparent. As such, accreditation programs such as the Fair Farms Initiative and Staffsure will be attached to the overall Ag visa program.