It is now about five months since the COVID-19 pandemic started to have a significant impact in Australia, with the first national movement restrictions commencing on Wednesday 18th March. Much has happened since that time with restrictions becoming more stringent, then easing, before being reinstated in Victoria. Likewise border restrictions have changed from open to closed, to partially open, and currently all states except Victoria have some entry restrictions. Inbound and outbound international travel is also limited and only available to those with exceptional circumstances.
Impact on workers
Not surprisingly many of these changes have had a major impact on the horticultural workforce – particularly for unskilled workers to pick and pack fruit and vegetables. This workforce mainly comprises three distinct types of workers who have all been affected differently by COVID-19 restrictions.
Surprisingly, most horticulture workers are actually Australian residents, with family members, local residents and some travellers performing a range of tasks – often semi-skilled and supervisors. This group hasn’t been overly affected by COVID restrictions, although any travelling workers such as grey nomads are finding it difficult to travel between states.
Unfortunately a large number of Australian residents have recently found themselves unemployed and potentially available for horticulture work. Unemployment overall is predicted to increase even further as JobKeeper payments decline.
This creates a new pool of experienced, reliable Australians with a proven employment record, who may be available to fill horticulture positions. Growers may need to rethink stereotypes about the reliability and productivity of Australian workers if they want to maintain the workforce they need. This will be a new resource they can tap into.
The difficult factor accessing recently unemployed Australian workers is that they will be largely based in the city or regional centres, while most horticulture is not. It will be 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. It will be up to individual farmers and the horticulture industry to make sure they make it as attractive as possible for this potential working cohort if it is required.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the backpacker workforce with many of these potential workers leaving the country since March. The extent of the departures is clearly highlighted in the period from March to May when 55,541 of 143,041 backpackers who entered Australia in 2018/19 returned to their home countries with no incoming replacements. The speed and size of departures is starkly represented by data from Home Affairs showing that as at 21 June 2020, there were 87,459 WHM’s in Australia, representing:
- a 7% decrease since 21 May 2020 when there were 93,716 WHM’s in Australia;
- a 13% decrease from 21 April when there were 101,056 WHM’s in Australia;
- a 35% decrease from 21 March when there were 135,258 WHM’s in Australia
Despite many backpackers leaving the country, a large proportion of the remaining cohort initially sought horticulture work, this was in addition to a noticeable increase in Australian workers who found themselves suddenly unemployed. However when the JobKeeper Allowance was announced, enquiries from Australian workers reduced substantially.
As much of the country starts to reopen and hospitality jobs return, backpackers will likely drift back to those jobs which they prefer. In the meantime they will largely have undertaken the 88 days of horticulture work which will qualify them for the second visa should they wish to apply for it. Few will choose horticulture over hospitality or other jobs if they have a choice, so many will not return to horticulture unless they really have to.
The Government has made it clear that incoming visitors to Australia are unlikely to be accepted until at least 2021, so the pool of available backpackers is likely to be very small for the foreseeable future.
Seasonal Worker Programme
Fortunately very few Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) workers have left the country since the start of the pandemic, with the 6,938 still in the country, representing only a 4% reduction since March. This is mainly due to a lack of flights to their home country and the extension of visas to enable them to stay in the country for longer.
However, as with backpackers, there have been no new SWP arrivals into Australia since the international borders were closed. However, in a glimmer of good news, Northern Territory farmers have reached agreement with the Commonwealth Government to allow a group of up to 200 workers from Vanuatu to enter the NT, quarantine in Darwin and then work on the mango harvest. If this pilot is successful, additional groups of 130-200 could enter Darwin every two weeks. Presumably once mango harvest was complete, these workers would be able to move to other states to undertake different work – including in protected cropping.
Planning is critical
With a rapidly changing environment and the real potential for significant shortages of unskilled labour looming, workforce planning takes on a critical role for any business reliant on external labour to pick, pack or manage crops.
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.
Another option is to seek Australian residents from nearby towns (if large towns are close), 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.
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.
If you are contacted by people looking for work, please ask them NOT TO TRAVEL TO ANY REGIONAL AREAS UNLESS THEY HAVE A CONFIRMED JOB TO GO TO. Rural communities do not want people arriving in their towns without a job, especially where there is limited accommodation.
Harvest Trail can help
If 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.
Trying to find good updated information can be difficult but the NFF has an excellent webpage at nff.org.au/covid-19 which is worth checking out.
It is a challenging time for everyone and restrictions are constantly changing. The most important thing to do is stay up to date.
This article is intended to provide access to information and resources to promote an understanding of work and travel restrictions in response to COVID-19.
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