Survey uncovers multi-million-dollar cost of farm labour crisis

New research from the National Farmers’ Federation has found that Aussie farms are losing as much as $2 million each year due to crippling workforce shortages.

It’s an issue the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) has been advocating on for some time, but with only incremental success.

Australia’s farmers – particularly those in the horticulture industry – are being forced to leave their produce to rot on the vine or tree because they can’t get workers to harvest it.

New research has uncovered the growing extent of the problem, and the cost it imposes on farm businesses.

“The 2019 Farm Workforce Survey shines a light on the factors that influence Australia’s labour supply challenges, as well as the consequences,” NFF President Fiona Simson said.

“Agriculture’s labour woes are felt most acutely by the horticulture sector, where farmers need high volumes of low-skilled workers for concentrated periods of time. These roles have been going unfilled.

“More than half of the survey respondents who were affected by labour shortages indicated direct and indirect costs to their business as a result.”

According to the survey results, single-farm losses due to labour shortages were as high as $2 million.

“$2 million is a staggering cost for any business to bear. We can’t continue to ignore this problem in the face of these findings,” Ms Simson emphasised.

Employment status

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, with only 12 per cent of the survey respondents using the Seasonal Worker Programme.

“Most farmers choose the allegedly easier, cheaper and less fraught employment option of hiring workers directly and one fifth said they prefer to use labour-hire contractors,” Ms Simson said.

63 per cent of respondents opted to instead employ non-residents on their farms. Many said it was necessary because permanent residents were either not available in sufficient numbers, or found farm work too difficult or not to their liking.

In fact, farmers found that non-residents were largely perceived as more reliable than permanent residents. This is mainly because farm work is labour intensive, not available all year around and therefore not suited to some Australian job seekers.

“Australian farmers are known to be fair employers and the stats show it, with almost all of the survey respondents paying their employees more than what’s required by the applicable Award.

“Annual employment costs for most farmers range between $100,000 and $500,000 and in some cases almost $2 million,” Ms Simson said.

The proposed solution to Australia’s workforce woes

The NFF continues to call for an agriculture-specific visa to match international workers with the jobs fruit and vegetable growers 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,” Ms Simson said.

“It’s intended to complement the Working Holidaymaker Visa, the Seasonal Worker Programme and the many initiatives designed to see more Australians take up farm jobs.”

CLICK HERE for more information about the Ag Visa.

The NFF Workforce Survey is conducted annually, and intended to help form a clearer picture how Australian farmers are affected by workforce issues, particularly those connected to labour supply on farms. The information provided by respondents will facilitate a more detailed analysis of policies and programs intended to ease the pressure of labour shortages, providing a reference point for the NFF’s advocacy work on behalf of farmers seeking to keep their businesses viable.

Andrea Martinello

Andrea Martinello

Andrea is the Community & Engagement Officer at the National Farmers' Federation.

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