Australia 26,000 horticulture workers short by March

vegetablesWA chief executive John Shannon.
Camera IconvegetablesWA chief executive John Shannon. Credit: Cally Dupe

Concerns over labour shortages in the horticulture sector continue to escalate as WA remains one of the few states not re-engaging the seasonal worker and Pacific labour programs.

A new report released last week by Ernst & Young and commissioned by Hort Innovation, shows that nationally the sector must brace for a shortage of up to 26,000 workers by March 2021.

This would represent a 36-59 per cent labour supply shortagebetween November 2020 and June 2021.

VegetablesWA chief executive officer John Shannon said the report has quantified the enormity of the challenge Australian farmers are facing ahead of the spring and summer picking season.

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“In a typical year, about 7,000 jobs need to be filled over this period in WA agriculture alone for harvesting, packing and processing work,” he said.

“The impacts of this situation are going to be felt for years to come because growers are making decisions right now about whether to produce the same amount of crop even for the current spring or summer or move away from the crop types that require large amounts of labour.

“With the challenge of getting workers on farms only worsening, a Deloitte Access Economics report indicates we are bracing for vegetable shortages and a potential price increase of some lines by up to 60 per cent.”

Early last month, WA Premier Mark McGowan requested the Federal Government adjust their policy settings and ensure Western Australians who take up seasonal work in regional WA were not penalised financially.

VegetablesWA labour scheme facilitator Melissa Denning said growers were extremely concerned about the notable lack of interest in the sector’s jobs and were eager to join ranks with the rest of the country and re-engage seasonal workers.

“We are seeing extremely low rates of transmission of COVID-19 in the countries where we source our horticultural workforce,” Ms Denning said.

“Historically we’ve flown workers in from a range of countries including Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Tonga, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Nauru.

“We have over 5000 candidates available to us in a Work Ready Pool, it’s time to discuss what the consequences will be if we do not get these workers onto our farms in the near future.”

The State Government continues to run the Work and Wander out Yonder campaign to attract local workers, encouraging industry to use the #wworkandwander hashtag in any of their job advertisements.

Growers have also been encouraged to use the Rural Enterprises, Harvest Trail and Studium websites to advertise positions, in addition to Seek and Gumtree.

Mr Shannon said that he commended the State Government on its handling of the State’s hard borders but urged stakeholders to look at quarantine solutions that will enable Western Australian’s to have adequate food on the table at Christmas time.

“Last month 160 seasonal workers from Vanuatu landed in Darwin to fill a labour shortage for the Northern Territory's mango harvest,” Mr Shannon said.

“These workers quarantined for the mandatory 14 days and were Covid free because the protocols that were put in place worked extremely well.

“We’re seeing the Prime Minister backing the decision for South Australia to fly back 300 international students via Singapore later this month, and the Northern Territory Government confirmed on Monday it was working with Charles Darwin University to fly 70 international students to Darwin from Singapore.”

Mr Shannon said that if growers are willing to pay to quarantine their workers, the State Government must allow them to, to ensure long-term food security and the wellbeing of WA.

“The State can protect itself from COVID-19, while ensuring the people of WA have access to enough fresh produce,” he said.

“We just need to take stock of the information we have available and implement all possible precautionary measures to get these workers onto farms in a safe and timely manner.”

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