It seems strange to say it, but “the good old days” when there were lots of backpackers looking for harvest work to get their visa extended are now long gone. The closure of international borders has seen a steady reduction in backpacker numbers remaining in the country. To put some perspective on this impact, in just over 12 months, backpacker numbers have declined from 143,041 to 36,369 and backpackers continue to leave the country at the rate of around 2-3,000 per month.
Given that decline, it is highly likely that only a few backpackers will remain in the country at the end of the year, so the prudent thing to do is plan for a workforce without any backpackers – Australian residents, international students or Seasonal Worker Program (SWP) workers are the only real alternatives.
These workers will not be sitting around waiting for a work offer (it takes at least three months to organise the arrival of SWP workers) so it is important to plan well ahead and put some strategies in place to attract workers and encourage them to stay until the end of harvest.
Given that these workers have probably not done any horticulture work before there are a few tips that will make life a whole lot easier as harvest approaches:
Planning, planning, planning
It’s not an understatement to say that workforce planning is now the most critical aspect of securing a suitable workforce.
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).
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.
A few tips to make life easier for you and your workforce
- Think about the number of workers you would normally have and add a percentage on to it to cover a potential higher turnover
- Think about the style and type of worker best suited to your harvest.
- Think about ways to maximise the workers output, considering a large number may have not done Harvest work before. Hourly paid (at least for 2-3 weeks) is likely to keep workers motivated and give them time to increase their speed before moving to a piece rate. If you put workers on an hourly rate ensure you provide them with clear expectations of the speed/quality you expect them to reach. This needs to be realistic and achievable.
- Offer more regular breaks and stretching exercises. There have been numerous reports of workers leaving after 2-3 days work as their bodies become sore due to physical exertion. Any initiatives to help workers get through this period will greatly increase the chances of them staying for longer periods.
- Endeavour to make the workplace an enjoyable experience. Simple initiatives such as a weekly BBQ or financial reward for worker of the week, or most improved worker will help.
- Consider paying a bonus to workers who stay for the duration of the harvest
- Make sure you have plenty of fresh ice cold water in summer and provide facilities for tea and lunch breaks.
- Have on-farm accommodation available at minimal or no cost, or provide camping facilities on-farm (subject to council approval).
- Assist with providing transport from nearby towns for workers without vehicles
- 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 worker.
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.
Obviously having well developed COVID-19 management strategies and health plans in place is critical to ensuring a workforce remains safe.
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 https://jobsearch.gov.au/harvest 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 border restrictions and COVID requirements are constantly changing. The most important thing to do is stay up to date.