It is now about twelve months since the COVID-19 pandemic started to have a significant impact in Australia, with the first national movement restrictions commencing on 18 March, 2020, followed by the closure of the international border two days later. This has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of overseas workers available for horticulture work.
The closure of the international border has had a profound impact on the horticulture workforce with no new Working Holidaymakers (backpackers) arriving in the country since the closure. To put some perspective on the impact of the closure, in just less than 12 months backpacker numbers have declined from 143,041 to 47,830 and WHM’s continue to leave the country at the rate of around 6,000 per month.
The Government has made it clear that incoming visitors to Australia are unlikely to be accepted until early 2022, so the pool of available backpackers is likely to continue to dwindle for the foreseeable future.
Seasonal workers unable to return home
The border closure has also had a major impact on the Seasonal Worker Program (SWP), but in different ways to backpackers as most SWP workers have been unable to return to their home countries. A restart of the SWP has resulted in around 1,000 new workers coming to Australia and the overall numbers currently working are around 7,000.
Headache for growers
This rapid decline in worker numbers has caused some pretty big headaches for many growers who base their harvest and packing workforce around having access to a large and willing pool of temporary workers. Waiting until a week before you need workers to speak to a contractor is no longer guaranteed to result in the numbers of workers needed.
Workforce planning – more important than ever
Workforce Planning is a topic that has tended to sit in the background when backpackers were plentiful, and unlimited numbers of SWP workers could enter the country. Similar to business planning, workforce planning is “a continuous process of understanding your current workforce skills (where you are now), desired skills for your future workforce (where you are going) and your workforce gaps, and developing strategies and actions to close those gaps (how you will get there)”. (Qld Jobs Network 2021)
So the solution to ensuring that a crop can be picked and packed is to plan well in advance. While no amount of workforce planning will bring in more backpackers, the process encourages you to look beyond the normal avenues and put strategies in place to both attract workers and keep them happy so they are likely to stay until the end of harvest.
With a lack of overseas workers available, and only a trickle of SWP workers coming into the country, planning needs to centre on workers that are available to you – and the obvious group that are abundant are Australian citizens. Prior concerns about the willingness of locals to undertake horticulture work have been disproved in a number of regions, with the number of Australians working on farms increasing daily.
Unfortunately, a large number of Australian residents have recently found themselves unemployed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and are now potentially available for horticulture work. As JobKeeper payments cease at the end of March, more of these unemployed people may be seriously looking at doing some horticulture work. Relocation incentives of up to $6,000 help motivate them to move from cities to country areas where most of the jobs are.
Growers may need to rethink stereotypes about the reliability and productivity of Australian workers if they want to maintain the workforce they need. They may also need to invest more in skills development to provide ongoing employment once harvest is over.
It is a big decision for someone to leave their home and family in the city to travel to the regions, source accommodation, and take up seasonal work, even in the short term. Anything that can be done to make this transition easier is likely to pay off in the longer term.
Practical actions to encourage and retain workers
There are a variety of things that can be done that will make your workplace more attractive to workers, and increase the likelihood that they will stay until the end of the season. Not all of these initiatives can be implemented by every grower, but any or all will help.
- Have on-farm accommodation available at minimal or no cost
- Provide camping facilities on the farm – subject to council approval
- Assist with providing transport from nearby towns for workers without vehicles
- Pay the hourly rate if possible as many workers will refuse to accept piece rate work
- Where piece rate is used, make sure the rate complies with the Horticulture Award, and provide an initial period of hourly pay to enable new workers to build up speed and stamina. You must have a written piecework agreement in place with every piece rate worker.
- Consider paying a bonus to workers who stay for the duration of the harvest
- Consider low cost social activities, ie weekly BBQ as a reward for staying on.
The game has changed
While some of the above initiatives may seem onerous or expensive, remember the playing field has changed significantly with substantial shortages of labour forcing some growers to leave crops unharvested.
It’s a workers market with many jobs available for people prepared to do the work – and they will pick and choose to find their preferred job. It’s a pretty basic free market in action – demand exceeds supply and consequently the cost of goods (in this case labour) goes up. These market forces won’t return to balance until more workers are available, either through the SWP restart, opening of international borders or introduction of other incentives.
Identify workforce needs and competencies well in advance
With previous workforce employment models now effectively redundant, a lot more thought needs to be put into determining workforce needs well in advance and implementing strategies to secure a workforce in a competitive environment.
The first option is to encourage and incentivise any existing workers to stay, or return in subsequent seasons.
Seek Australian residents from nearby towns or cities, and have an open mind as to how many of these workers may perform, particularly if they have recently left secure employment and have a well-developed work ethic. State and commonwealth governments now have a range of incentives in place to encourage workers to travel to regional areas to take up horticulture work.
If it is not possible to secure your workforce, and advertising is needed, make sure this is done well in advance to give people time to plan their movements, particularly if they are coming from interstate.
Obviously having well developed COVID-19 management strategies and health plans in place is critical to ensuring a workforce remains safe. Having suitable on-farm accommodation always assists in encouraging workers to advertised vacancies, rather than other businesses.
Harvest Trail can help
If you are looking for harvest workers anywhere in Australia, the Harvest Trail Information Service can help. A simple call to the Contact Centre on 1800 062 332 is all it takes, or go to harvesttrail.gov.au to lodge vacancies independently. The Contact Centre consultants can assist with finding suitable people and the service costs nothing to use. Also, people looking for horticulture work can see any listed vacancies on the website and can get up-to-date information on all aspects of harvest jobs by speaking to Contact Centre staff.
It is a challenging time for everyone and COVID-19 restrictions are constantly changing. One important thing to do is stay up to date.
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