The farm sector cites a lack of workers as one of agriculture’s biggest constraints on productivity growth.
So, it’s no wonder the National Farmers’ Federation was perplexed when this week the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics and Science (ABARES) published a study purporting to show that agriculture doesn’t have a significant labour problem.
The Demand for Farm Workers Farm Survey 2018 found that out of the 2,400 farms surveyed across broadacre, dairy, horticulture and some irrigation industries, vacancies were generally filled, and recruitment difficulties were similar or less common than other businesses in the economy.
By industry, 14% of vegetable growers and 18% of both fruit and nut growers said they had difficulty recruiting workers.
Strangely, this is almost the exact opposite of what NFF members report the situation to beNFF CEO Tony Mahar
Mr Mahar said the findings were inconsistent with what’s actually happening on the ground, and didn’t consider the lived experiences of farmers.
“We have strong reservations about the report as we know the farm labour shortage is most severe in horticulture and while it is still a serious problem, it is less so in the dairy and broadacre sectors.
“The survey doesn’t align with what farmers are saying. It also didn’t cover many of the main fruit growing regions and instead focussed on fruit growing in the Murray Darling Basin,” Mr Mahar said.
“We are concerned that the findings are unhelpful in providing up-to-date data and positive steps that can be taken to deliver policies and initiatives to widen the farm workforce pool.”
Mr Mahar said industry-led surveys provided much more insight into the issue on a regional level.
“A 2019 report commissioned by growers and led by Vegetables WA and developed by Dr. Joanna Howe of the University of Adelaide, found that 40% of vegetable growers had been unable to fill vacancies over a five-year period, and 22% said they experienced difficulties attracting workers ‘almost all of the time.”
Alarmingly Dr. Howe confirmed that some growers feel they need to rely on undocumented migrants – paid cash-in-hand – to fill vacancies, which is in breach of their visa conditions and do not comply with Australian labour standards.
AUSVEG National Public Affairs Manager, Tyson Cattle said in the case of the seasonal worker program vegetable and fruit growers were replacing a workforce every three months, which had become a management nightmare.
He also commented on the lack of longer-term visa options, suited to farms with less regular harvesting.
The NFF’s own survey into the agriculture workforce found that 43% of farmers experienced labour shortages, and only 21% said they never experienced shortages.
Worryingly, the survey found 20% of farmers surveyed estimated losses exceeding $50,000 per annum, with some reporting losses of up to $2 million per annum. Thirty per cent said a shortfall in labour supply was their principle labour concern for the 12-month period, second only to labour costs.
Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) conducted a similar survey and found that a massive 67% of growers in the Sunraysia region required additional workers. Although an extreme case, this highlights the realities of labour shortages in rural and remote regions of Australia.
Mr Mahar said that although the Government’s report did not accurately depict the plight of many farmers, particularly in the horticulture industry, the NFF recognised the difficultly of accurately assessing labour challenges and making generalised findings that cover all farms irrespective of enterprise, size, location and intensity.
Despite the findings by ABARES, we remain firmly of the view that there is a problem.NFF CEO Tony Mahar
“The figures are clouded by the mobility of workers, fluctuation between peak and non-peak labour needs, reliance on contractors and labour hire, and the prevalence of undocumented workers.
Mr Mahar also said that the report relied on quantitative findings, whereas the NFF hears directly from farmers about their day-to-day experiences of the challenges of not only sourcing but retaining workers.
From NFF’s experience, the report by ABARES needs to combine statistical findings with the variance of the agriculture sector and all the unique complexities that accompany it.
“Despite the findings by ABARES, we remain firmly of the view that there is a problem,” Mr Mahar said.