Growers are already experiencing hundreds of labour vacancies across the northern region of Australia. As the economy reopens, fewer backpackers will choose to work on farms. One farmer says she will abandon plans to grow vegetables next year without a secure labour supply.
“It would have been about $150,000 that we left in the paddock,” she said. “We had about 5,000 trays to go out of that and the current market price was $30.
“Unless there is a secure abundance of people in Australia to start next year, I don’t think we’ll be growing.”
A forum in the nearby town of Ayr, 70 kilometres south-east of Townsville, heard the shortage would cut into local incomes next year.
Among the areas worst hit will be towns along the east coast of Queensland, the Riverina, the Tasmanian and Victorian fruit growing regions, and the Northern Territory overall. Farm lobby Growcom’s Eilis Walker said the potential for massive crop losses could be an emergency situation.
“We’re ploughing in crops worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s no situation that any Australian ever wants to look at,” she said. “I do get quite emotional about it.”
Mrs McShane slammed the existing Federal Government schemes to encourage urban Australians and working holidaymakers to relocate to a harvest region, saying the scheme would not work. The requirement for backpackers on working holidaymakers visas to qualify for a second year visa is to complete 88 days of farm work, while six months farm work qualifies them for a third year visa.
Despite offering a $500 bonus for workers completing the season, the former Growcom director said it was not enough. “We have to understand what the backpackers’ criteria is — that’s to get their 88 days,” she said. “When they’re done, they’re done, and every single backpacker hostel owner in Ayr said the same thing. “It didn’t matter what they tried to offer — reduced rent, bonuses et cetera — no, they’re gone.”
Despite hiring some Australians who were travelling while on JobSeeker, the farm has not been able to retain them for more than a fortnight as large parts of the economy reopen. Attendees at the forum said they believe willing workers are flocking to less difficult jobs in air-conditioned environments, but businesses including trucking companies and light industries needed staff too.
Farmer Chris Coyne said he understood the tropical heat made it difficult to work long days in the paddock and the answer might be in developing technology. “I’m a big believer in automation. Going forward, if I could develop a machine to pick butternuts [pumpkins] I’d be all in,” he said.
Visa changes last hope
With thousands of dollars in relocation allowances unlikely to succeed in attracting scarce workers, some farmers think radical immigration reforms are needed.
Industry has relied heavily on working holiday visa holders since 2006, when the second year visa scheme began, giving farmers in remote areas in particular few other options. Mrs McShane said incentives, including a pathway to permanent settlement in Australia, could be the last hope to lure workers back to farms. “They need to immediately introduce some other incentive scheme to get them back onto the farms. The only incentive is some sort of visa,” she said.
“A lot of them come to Australia to get residency, the Government needs to look at fast-tracking residency for them.”
While $2,000 Federal Government relocation allowances for backpackers — rising to $6,000 for Australians — come into effect in November, some growers want the scheme widened. Bowen-Gumlu Growers Association president Carl Walker said money should be available to pay for isolating incoming seasonal workers under a renewed Pacific Labour Scheme. “There’s options where we could bring in a plane-load of people, put them in empty workers camps, isolate them,” he said.
“If we do not get some talks going for 2021, the pain we’re suffering now is nothing compared to what we’ll suffer next year.”