Virus jobs famine could leave feast of produce to rot
FARMERS are staring down a shocking crunch point which could see crops worth millions of dollars left to rot on the vine, even with more Aussies in dole queues than the past twenty years as they're unwilling to move vast distances to do the tough work.
Seasonal workers available to pick crops and work the farm are quickly disappearing, but while there is a massive labour force of Aussies looking for work.
But Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said farmers in regional areas can't compete with JobSeeker payments in the cities, and convince people to move 1200km away or more for short-term work.
The number of backpackers in the countries, who normally fill the jobs that locals don't want, has halved from 180,000 to 90,000 and is continuing to fall, despite the government offering them incentives to stay and work in agriculture, health and aged care.
LNP Senator Susan McDonald said in some cases the problem wasn't an "unskilled workforce, but an unwilling workforce".
The first crunch point for the industry in April was avoided when the government extended the time for holiday worker, Pacific Island worker and seasonal worker visas if they agreed to work in the essential industries of agriculture, health and aged care.
But as the numbers of visa holders in Australia dwindle, and international borders remaining shut, a second danger zone is looming for the next picking season from September to March.
Mr Littleproud said farmers needed to advertise for Australian workers before they hired a someone on a visa, but the distant location of the work, needing to move every few weeks or months made it hard for many people.
"Our preference is for an Australian to work, particularly if they're unemployed," he said.
"But in essence, the challenge that farmers have, they can't wait for someone to know if they want to do this work.
"The labour market is there to source it. It's the fluidity and moving it around the country to address the needs we have to deal with."
He said he was working with industry to develop ways to ensure they keep a work force.
Senator McDonald said it was difficult to convince people to move geographically to fill the job vacancies.
"We need to map out what overseas seasonal workforce remains in the country, what the requirements are in different parts of the country and when they are needed throughout the years," she said.
Sunshine Coast based Pinata Farms' Gavin Scurr said they had enough workers for now, but they were already beginning to see the drop off.
"We'd love to hire Australians, but the reality is none of them are out here to get a job. It doesn't make sense that people don't have a job and we could have fruit rotting in the field," he said.
Mr Scurr said opening up a trans-Tasman bubble with New Zealand and other COVID-safe Pacific Island nations would make a huge difference.
Horticulture peak body Growcom boss David Thomson said the industry was preparing for its pool of available labour to shrink.
"Our focus is now sifting beyond our winter season to ensure labour supply through to the end of the year and beyond," he said.
He said economic modelling was being worked up to determine just how many workers there would be needed and where.
"When the time comes this work will assist us to understand our options and have the policy levers ready to pull," Mr Thomson said.
Originally published as Virus jobs famine could leave feast of produce to rot