Unskilled workers filling void

Kate PollardCountryman
The West logo

As seeding programs across the grainbelt finish, a mass of backpackers will begin leaving rural communities for their next adventure.

At the same time, there will be another group chasing the sun - picking fruit and vegetables in the north.

In both cases, primary producers are relying more on this unskilled workforce to help meet the labour shortage.

But how sustainable is it?

Jobs that used to be snapped up by a local workforce are now the domain of transient workers from overseas.

Each year farmers weigh up the pros and cons of hiring backpackers and for some it's a foundation for making contacts that can provide a consistent labour pool to draw from.

For others, using unskilled labour to drive expensive machinery can lead to costly repairs and high insurance premiums.

Organic growers are tapping their own network - Willing Workers on Organic Farms - who volunteer for four to six hours a day in exchange for meals and accommodation.

While seasonal employment can create headaches, it's just as big a battle to find full-time workers who are lured by the promise of big money by the mining industry.

Some farmers are left with no choice but to heavily rely on 457 visas because it guarantees a worker for three years.

In Esperance, the local chamber of commerce is working with the Department of Immigration in a Regional Migration Agreement to address labour shortages in the growing town and within agriculture.

Esperance CCI chief executive Grant Shipp said rather than a Statewide migration scheme, they can identify where the shortages in the region are and develop a migration scheme around that.

"We've been in conversation with the Department of Immigration for about a year and are trying to progress it," he said.

Mr Shipp said the latest unemployment figure for Esperance was 2.2 per cent, less than 190 people.

"It really shows there are not many people out there," he said.

"The questions we have now are, how many of those are currently employable, how many need further training and how many actively want work?"

A similar pilot was rolled out in Darwin in February to help employers fill skills and labour shortages for major projects.

A Senate Committee headed by Senator Chris Back is expected to release a report into higher education and skills training in agriculture and agribusiness.

The committee was told labour shortages cost Australian farmers more than $150 million in lost productivity a year and there was a shortage of 96,000 full-time skilled workers and 10,000 casual workers.

The committee was given the task of looking at education funding, the decline in agriculture education facilities and solutions to address the gap between skilled labour supply and demand.

They also looked at the impact on the shortage of agricultural research and animal welfare.

With 69 submissions received from farm lobby groups, industry, education institutions and agribusiness, a long-term solution could be within the industry's grasp.

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails