Labour Supply For Horticulture:

Are we really short of workers?

By Peter Angel, State Manager – Harvest Trail, MADEC

Calls for agricultural visas and stories of fruit being left to rot on trees because growers can’t find pickers all speak to the need for a good labour supply for horticulture. But is there really a shortage of labour? Or are we just needing to do a better job of finding the right labour for seasonal jobs and take better advantage of existing sources.

Finding the right labour is hard

There’s no doubt that growers can experience challenges in finding and employing seasonal workers – it can be a time-consuming task taking growers away from their core business of production. Add to that the need to keep up with employment and wages law, labour hire licensing and visa changes, as well as managing piece rates, training new staff, checking people’s work eligibility and all the other human resources bits and pieces associated with finding and employing staff. Plus of course employers want to select a worker who is willing and able to turn up and do the job – and do it well.

It’s little wonder that growers find sourcing the right labour difficult.

From the workers’ perspective, casual seasonal work in the fruit and vegetable industry can be hard yakka – working outside all day in sometimes extreme heat or cold. Inconsistent or irregular work is also an issue, with naturally short seasons being compounded by sudden changes to the start and finish of the season due to a multitude of factors. On top of that, enforced breaks at short notice due to fluctuating markets, pest or disease incursions or weather events, can make continuity of work a challenge. So, it is hardly surprising that not everyone is enthused about harvest work, and if another alternative is available many will take that option.

Sources of workers

However, there are many people who are attracted to getting out into the fresh air, living in a friendly regional community, and looking for opportunities to leave the hustle and bustle of city life behind.

Add to this other incentives such as the opportunity to extend ‘Working Holiday’ (subclass 417) and ‘Work and Holiday’ (subclass 462) visas from one year to two (and shortly a third year will be available – more on this later), and a workforce of many tens of thousands of backpackers become available across the country keen to have a go.

Overall, backpackers visiting Australia – working holiday makers on 417 and 462 visas – number in the hundreds of thousands. Backpackers who have been granted a second-year visa and therefore have completed three-months’ work in seasonal jobs in regional Australia, may have declined from a high of more than 45,000 in 2013/14, but they still exceeded 36,000 in 2017/18. Considering these second-year visas did not exist before 2005, they clearly continue to provide an important source of additional labour to horticulture.

On top of that the Seasonal Worker Programme offers workers from Pacific island countries and Timor-Leste the opportunity to change their lives by earning Australian dollars, and there is a big pool of reliable and enthusiastic people sitting on our international doorstep just waiting to be invited over.

Indeed, SWP visa numbers are increasing at a rapid rate. After 1,473 visas were issued when the program was introduced in 2012, they have about doubled every two years since. In 2017/18, 8,459 SWP visas were granted, and this year (2018/19) we can expect the numbers will again increase. Moreover, people on SWP visas during this time worked twice as long (six months) in seasonal rural jobs compared to the mandated three months of rural work required for second-year ‘Working Holiday’ and ‘Work and Holiday’ visas. SWP workers can now do up to nine months – more on this later.

A time of genuine shortage

Industry and commodity associations will remember the genuine shortages and production losses that occurred before the introduction of the second-year ‘Working Holiday’ visa in 2005 and they do not wish to return to those ‘bad old days’.

But memories are short and sometimes the story is presented as labour shortage when the real issue of sourcing labour was, and still often is, the cost of labour.

Labour in Australia is expensive, especially at the bottom end of the wages spectrum in comparison to similar countries. A grower that seeks to find workers willing to work for less than legal wages is not a valid reason to employ people illegally because they cannot find legal workers for the essential task of getting their crop off. Workers unlawfully employed have no ability to complain about their wages or conditions, so are ripe to be cheated out of legal wages and superannuation, and on-costs such as their tax and workcover levy are not paid, so they are a much lower cost choice for unscrupulous employers.

These comments do not mean that there are not ever genuine localised shortages. Consider the backpacker who has the choice whether to prune grape vines at sunrise in a Tasmania winter, or pick capsicums in Queensland at the same time of year in balmy weather conditions; it is a no-brainer which is the more desirable offer. And picking blueberries under shadecloth a short drive from Byron Bay is always going to be more attractive than harvesting watermelons in 40 plus degree heat in semi-arid regions a day’s drive away. However, when jobs are filled in the first choice locations, most backpackers are prepared to take other options because they have limited time to fulfil the requirements of their quest for 88 days of work to stay a second year.

New sources of labour

In 2018/19 changes to visas to facilitate more seasonal workers have been announced or already put in place.

To start with, people on ‘Working Holiday’ or ‘Work and Holiday’ visas from 1 July 2019 will be able to stay for a third year if they do an additional six months horticulture work in certain regional areas. We’re still waiting to hear the details of when and how this will be implemented, but the Government announced and committed to it back in November 2018.

Plus, as of 5 November 2018, people under the Seasonal Worker Programme can now stay for nine months in total, adding to the labour supply pool. SWP visa numbers are expected to keep climbing due to the popularity of the program, and the productivity and work attitude of the people. There is no cap on the number of SWP visas that can be issued – providing an excellent source of labour for growers interested in exploring new labour avenues.

Regardless of the labour source, it is always incumbent on growers to pay and treat their workers fairly. This will help to attract and retain staff and build a sustainable industry. Given the new and under-utilised sources of labour available, growers have no excuse to employ people illegally.

The Australian Government has funded the national Harvest Trail for over 15 years and it makes a big contribution to redistributing seasonal workers through the regions in need, with most vacancies filled within days, and some merely in hours. Growers can take advantage of the Harvest Trail at no cost by simply calling 1800 062 332.

So, is there a genuine shortage? Yes, in peak harvest time in some regions temporary shortages can occur. But for most of the time growers who know where to source labour and are prepared to pay correct award wages or fair piece rates and treat workers well will almost always find sufficient, committed, motivated workers.

Snapshot: sources of labour

  • Harvest Trail website and call centre that matches seasonal harvest vacancies with those looking for work. Harvest Trail is funded by the Australian Government and managed by MADEC and is provided at no cost. It has been in operation for over 15 years
  • Regional Harvest Labour Services offices – available in some key horticulture areas
    • Free regional service to source workers, check visas and place with farms
  • Working Holiday (417) first year visa – in place since the 1970s and used by backpackers from Europe, Canada and some developed Asian countries
  • Working Holiday (417) second year visa – work in horticulture for three months in the first year can qualify visa holders for a second year in Australia
  • Working Holiday (417) third year visa – a 2018 innovation available only for horticulture work
  • Work and Holiday (462) first year visa – has been available for a number of years for SE Asian and other developing countries to work in Australia
  • Work and Holiday (462) second year visa – has been available in Northern Australia but is now available across all regional areas of the country for visa holders who have worked three months in horticulture.
  • Work and Holiday Visa (462) – a 2018 innovation is a third year now available only for horticulture work
  • Seasonal Worker Programme – in place for 10 years since it was piloted in 2009 and provides a returning workforce each year
  • Pacific Worker Scheme – allows workers to come to Australia for semi-skilled jobs for up to three years and provides a pathway to permanent residency
  • Seasonal Work Incentives Trial for Australian Centrelink recipients only for horticulture work

About the author

Peter Angel, State Manager – National Harvest Labour Information Service, MADEC

Harvest Trail connects growers with workers and is provided as a no-cost service through a call centre and website. It is funded through the Australian Government and managed by MADEC, a not-for-profit organisation.