It is a comment often heard; “I’m lucky, I was able to find good harvest workers this year”. This assumes that it should have been difficult to find a good workforce.  This assumption is supported by numerous references in the media, and from industry and politicians to the chronic shortage of horticulture workers and the difficulty growers face in recruiting for these positions.

Is this really the case? A recent ABARES report questions the extent of worker shortages and suggests that in comparison to other industries, the majority of horticulture growers actually find the workers they need relatively easily.

What is the ABARES report?

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences is the research arm of the Australian Government Department of Agriculture. Their mission is to provide professionally independent data, research, analysis and advice for private and public use.

As part of their research, ABARES undertake a labour force survey every two years to provide an in-depth profile of labour demand, recruitment difficulties and future challenges that farmers face. The most recent survey was conducted in 2018 and involved input from over 2,400 agriculture businesses.1

The surveys covered broadacre, dairy and vegetable industries across all states, together with irrigated cotton and fruit and nut farms in the southern Murray-Darling Basin. In aggregate these industries account for 74% of total Australian agriculture sector employment.

Not Unexpected

A lot of the findings from the report confirmed what most people know – such as horticulture farms using large numbers of low skilled workers from overseas. However it is worth noting that family members and other Australian residents still provide around 50% of the labour on horticulture properties, with the ratio being higher for smaller farms.

The report also found that the use of contract workers by horticultural farms is widespread. Around 10% of horticulture workers were contract labour with an unknown background. With a large number of dodgy contractors operating in horticulture this finding is not unexpected, and it highlights the risk that some growers expose themselves to.  Labour hire contractors are increasingly being checked out by supermarkets, FairWork, Border Force and the ATO. The recent introduction of labour hire licensing in Qld, Vic and SA will place further scrutiny on the use of unscrupulous labour hire contractors.

Some Controversial Results

While the mix of labour on horticulture properties was not controversial, the conclusion from the report that few horticulture farms had difficulty recruiting certainly was!

ABARES concluded that for horticulture farmers in particular, recruitment difficulties are reduced by the low skilled nature of the work, the use of contract labour, and access to backpackers. This conclusion is broadly shared by the National Harvest Labour Information Service where we continue to see strong demand from backpackers to secure horticulture work to secure visa extensions. This resulted in 37,418 second year visa grants in 2018/19, an increase on the previous year. Recent changes to working holiday visas now allow 417 and 462 visa holders to gain a third year extension by doing six months of horticulture work in their second year. The first of these third year grants will occur from January 2020 and are expected to provide growers with access to another pool of workers, ones who will be motivated to work for at least six months.  And these workers will be experienced because they have already qualified for one extension from working in a regional area, most likely from doing farm work.

The strong growth of the Seasonal Worker Programme (where over 12,000 visas were granted in 2018/19) also gives growers access to an uncapped labour source. Pilot programmes are currently underway to allow greater flexibility to move workers between farms and allow shorter-harvest crops easier access to the increasingly popular Pacific and East Timorese workers.

Skilled Workers Harder to Find

While unskilled workers are relatively easy to find, skilled and semi-skilled workers are harder to recruit and the ABARES report found that farms had more difficulty recruiting higher skilled positions. This issue is not unique to agriculture and highlights the importance of access to agricultural training and the need to offer competitive wages and conditions.

To assist with sourcing skilled workers the Australian government has introduced some new programmes and visa types.

On 16 November 2019 the Department of Home Affairs introduced the new 491 Nominated Work Regional (Provisional) Skilled Visa. The 489 Skilled – Nominated (Provisional) visa is an Australian state-sponsored visa for skilled people wishing to live and work in a regional or low population growth area in Australia.

The Pacific Labour Scheme is effectively a variant of the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) and allows skilled and semi-skilled workers from Pacific countries and Timor-Leste to work in Australian horticulture businesses for up to three continuous years.

Planning the Key

With more scrutiny being placed on labour hire contractors, many growers will have to allocate more time to planning their workforce needs, just like employers from all industries. A number of options are available, but programmes such as the SWP and PLS have quite long lead times and some substantial employer obligations. However if you do some homework to fully understand the options available, the rewards of a reliable, productive workforce are achievable – and that’s not luck!

1Australian Government Department of Agriculture – Demand for farm workers: ABARES farm surveys 2018