Labour shortages still frustrate

Farmers continue to be worried about harvest labour shortages. Photo by Megan Fisher

Labour shortages causing increased production costs in the agricultural industry are likely to be passed onto the consumer, farmers warn.

The Agricultural Visa that was set up by the previous Coalition Government has been scrapped by the incoming Labor Government in favour of the Pacific Islander Labour Mobility scheme.

AUSVEG national public affairs manager Tyson Cattle said the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the labour shortages in the agricultural and horticultural sectors, with the 150,000 backpackers the agriculture sector rely on dropping to less than 40,000.

“The whole premise of the Ag Visa was to reduce the reliance on working holiday makers,” Mr Cattle said.

The workers from Pacific Nations that came to Australia during the pandemic under the PALM scheme were essential to keeping the industries operational Mr Cattle said, but more needed to be done to address industry-wide labour shortages.

“We're now have just about 20,000 workers in the country working on farms under the Pacific programs, which is more than we've ever had,” Mr Cattle said.

“And if we didn't have that during the COVID pandemic, then we will be absolutely having another conversation about growers closing up shop, but the reality is for us is that there’s absolutely room for both schemes.”

A VFF spokesperson said 50,000 people ready to come to Australia under the PALM scheme were just a “drop in the ocean” compared to the labour needs for the agricultural sector.

Federal Nationals Leader David Littleproud said the shortage of workers in the farming sector was being passed onto consumers.

“Farmers will only plant what can be picked, and with a continuing worker shortage, means there will be a reduced supply of groceries at supermarkets and that will push prices even higher,” Mr Littleproud said.

“We designed the Agricultural Visa that we believed was actually going to be an economic driver for the industry and bring in a whole bunch of workers that are willing and wanting and reliable to actually work in the sector.”

Although no migrants actually came to Australia under the Nationals’ Agricultural Visa scheme, Mr Cattle said it was designed to mitigate labour shortages — like the one the industry is currently experiencing — during the next 20 years.

“(Labour shortages) are impacting growers’ confidence in terms of being able to confidently plant the next crop,” he said.

“They're going ‘well, what's the point of me planting my next crop if I if I can't find anybody to pick it?’

“It’s certainly an issue of supply and we're disappointed that the Ag Visa isn't going to get up because we did see it as a as a really central, pivotal piece of the labour puzzle for us to change the structure of the workforce of horticulture.”

Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt said he wanted to train Australian workers and expand the Pacific labour scheme.

He said he was willing to investigate a variety of potential solutions, which included talking to the unions.

"If we break election commitments then we get into all sorts of other trouble ... I am open to ideas about how we address the problem,” Senator Watt said.