The horticulture sector may have a negative view of Australian workers, but a rethink might be worthwhile because workers who are available now will be better than no workers at all. Some growers have tasted success already.

Fact – most horticulture workers are Australian

It is a very common lament from farmers, especially in horticulture, that they refuse to consider Australian workers for seasonal horticulture work. Unfortunately, negative experiences colour their opinion, and when they relate stories about reliability, work ethic and productivity – they can hardly be blamed.

However, if you dig a little deeper you find that most horticulture workers are in fact Australians. Many of them are the farmers themselves and their families. Most of the longer-term and permanent jobs are also successfully undertaken by Australians. So, why the anomaly?

Why are horticulture jobs unattractive?

The positions that create the most concern are the shorter-term seasonal vacancies. These are casual jobs without any security. There is no guarantee of the length of season, nor the quantity of hours available. The work is usually repetitive, tedious, physical in nature, often exposed to the elements and dirty.

As the work is low-skilled – learned on the job, wages are at the Award minimum. And for inexperienced workers in particular, the uncertainty of earnings under piecework is an added barrier.

To top off the disincentives, anyone living in urban Australia is likely to have to leave their place of residence and relocate to where the farmwork is, doubling (or worse) their housing costs.

It is no wonder unemployed Australians appear to have little appetite for these jobs.

Enticing workers to the regions

Can Australians be enticed to leave their urban comforts for regional employment? Yes they can – the mining industry does it successfully, including to very remote locations. It does so with high wages, on-site accommodation, quality training and inductions, and a safety conscious workplace.

Can horticulture emulate these conditions? It is unlikely any horticulture operation would be able to justify mining wages, however some of the other conditions are achievable, albeit with effort.

When there is an alternative workforce, such as pre-COVID when working holiday-makers were freely available, the extra effort to entice workers was perceived as being unnecessary. The popularity of the second and third-year visa extensions were incentive enough for backpackers to seek out farm jobs. In fact the low-skilled, short-term, casual nature of horticulture jobs were just what backpackers were looking for, with no long-term commitments required from either party.

But now there are more than 100,000 fewer backpackers in the country, the labour pool is substantially diminished and employers need to consider other options.

During the past year many employers have realised the position they are in and have made active efforts to entice and retain Australian workers, including from sources they would not otherwise consider. And some have been pleasantly surprised with the results. Nobody is claiming this is all plain-sailing and that every employee is wonderful, but some Aussies have grasped the opportunity – surprising themselves as well as their employers.

How have growers succeeded?

So what efforts have employers been making to entice and keep the workforce that is on our doorstep?

Higher wages

Market forces have in some cases generated higher wages and piecerates, which have encouraged some people not otherwise interested. Many growers have done the calculations and accepted, albeit reluctantly, that a lower margin for their produce resulting from higher wages is better than total loss from a crop they cannot get to market without labour. The viability of each commodity will determine how generous increases can be.

Providing accommodation

Providing accommodation, or at least organising it, is also a substantial drawcard. For workers willing to relocate, finding a budget bed before travelling to a regional area can be daunting, so if it can be provided by the employer it removes a significant barrier. And while providing accommodation is strongly encouraged, it must be noted is it not legal to insist on a particular accommodation as a condition of employment. Whether the employer subsidises the accommodation or not is also a consideration, but obviously the cheaper it is the greater drawcard it becomes.

Inductions and training

Although many tasks in horticulture are low-skilled, providing a good induction and decent training to give a rookie the best chance of succeeding is essential. Tossing them ‘in the deep end’ with a ‘sink or swim’ mentality is setting workers up to fail – and nobody wins. While growers will be busy during this peak period, taking the time to demonstrate practical techniques and giving workers the opportunity to develop, can be time well spent. If the grower does not have the time, upping the wages of their best worker to supervisor level to undertake this job, could well return dividends.

Transition to piecework

For those going on piecework, consider offering them hourly paid work for a period until they become established. Keeping a worker on wages long enough to recognise they are improving daily, shows them that they can ultimately build up good piecework earnings later. That is much better than a disgruntled worker leaving after just a day or two, feeling ripped-off and bad-mouthing the grower to anyone who will listen, including the media, because they have earned so little on piecerates while learning.

Gradual work-hardening

Many commodities have a build-up period at the start of their season. Rather than taking on an initial limited workforce with full working hours, consider a broader workforce with less hours to start with. This provides an opportunity for inexperienced starters to become work-hardened gradually, with initial shorter working hours given them a chance to recover. When the season peaks, your now experienced staff are more likely to be able to handle full working days. If you don’t burn out your inexperienced workers by not starting them at full hours at the peak, they are more likely to stay.

Deep breath and stay calm!

Harvest can be a very stressful time for farmers, but taking frustrations out on the workers is a recipe for dissatisfaction. Everybody works better if they feel they are being treated and supported appropriately. Patience and encouragement, even if that is not how you feel, will result in a more positive attitude from staff, greater job satisfaction and a more stable workforce. Workers who feel they are well treated are far more likely to respond with effort and even loyalty – sometimes regardless of wages.

Freebie time

Everyone loves something for free. To show appreciation to a workforce by giving them something for nothing will win friends, and it does not have to cost much. A simple sausage sizzle at the end of the week to help the crew wind-down will cost little per head, but will win appreciation from many. It also provides an opportunity for positive, casual interaction with the workers that may not be realistic during the busy working day. Other acknowledgements such as ‘employee of the week’, or even publicly rewarding your best performers with gift cards, can be low cost encouragements to reduce staff turnover.

Real-life experiences

Each of the suggestions above have been drawn from the experience of horticulture employers who engage with the Harvest Trail team, who have gone the extra mile under COVID conditions. Of course there have been varying degrees of success, but all have been certain that without these extra efforts, production losses would have been greater than the cost and effort it took to improve their staff attraction and retention.

While a segment of the Australian workforce may require some time to rebuild the bridges needed for the horticulture sector to consider them as first option, employers can be part of the transition to success by making an extra effort themselves. While that extra effort may currently be out of necessity, ultimately it has the potential to be a win-win, because Australian workers are available here and now, and cannot be locked out of our international borders.