The COVID-19 crisis continues to dominate AUSVEG’s advocacy activities in 2020. In this column, AUSVEG National Public Affairs Manager Tyson Cattle outlines the major impacts that are being felt across the horticulture sector as a result of this global pandemic – with labour and worker movement at the fore.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause issues and change to the Australian and global landscape, so do our advocacy activities for the industry.

We have seen some advocacy success during COVID, with the approval of visa extensions and recognition from the federal level of agriculture and horticulture as an essential service. However, there is still work to be done with state governments to improve state border movements.

At the time of writing, AUSVEG was leading discussions with the National Farmers’ Federation Horticulture Council around the development and advocating for a 10-point plan to help solve horticulture’s labour issues.

The 10-point plan (see table) is designed to not only help address the immediate labour needs of industry, but also help address labour issues well into 2021 and beyond.

As an industry, we have already seen a significant reduction in Working Holiday Maker numbers from 141,000 to now under 80,000. We are expecting a further reduction in backpackers in the country as we get closer to Christmas and backpackers look to return home.

Bringing workers into Australia

The biggest concern for industry at the moment is the lack of a returning or replacement workforce coming back into the country.

The Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) pilot in the Northern Territory is a great result. This is not because we believe the planeload of workers will solve the industry’s labour woes but because we are hoping, as is the Federal Government, it helps to provide a COVID-safe blueprint to bring in new arrivals to Australia. That blueprint can be utilised for further SWP or Pacific Labour Scheme workers to arrive for work in different states, and even assist with a restart of the Working Holiday Maker program.

Another element of the key points is the focus on domestic displaced workers. All levels of government are very strong on providing opportunities to Australians, particularly as unemployment continues to rise.

We have been discussing with government a range of different options to help deliver a competent, reliable and efficient workforce to growers and we have been clear that it requires a multi-pronged approach to ensure fresh produce continues to hit market shelves.

Grower advice

We urge growers to do their bit and, where possible, advertise their workforce needs via the National Harvest Trail Information Service and lodge their needs as early as possible. This will assist not only their own workforce planning, but government and industry gaining a clearer understanding of the reality of our workforce needs.

The COVID situation is no doubt going to have a lasting impact on a range of industries, including horticulture, and we’ll continue to work to ensure growers can continue to produce the food that Australia – and the world – relies on.

10-point plan to solve horticulture labour crisis

  1. Seasonal Worker Programme pilot extension.
  2. Incentives for domestic displaced workers.
  3. Agricultural Workforce Code introduction.
  4. Promotion of opportunities to work in agriculture.
  5. Accommodation support.
  6. Development of a National Agricultural Workforce Development Network.
  7. National Labour Hire Licensing/Registration Scheme.
  8. Working holidaymaker restart.
  9. Agriculture Visa/Harvest Work Visa.
  10. Horticulture Industry Labour Agreement (HILA) additional occupations.

Find out more

Please contact AUSVEG National Public Affairs Manager Tyson Cattle on 03 9882 0277 or email tyson.cattle@ausveg.com.au. Further details can be found here.

This article is appearing in the spring 2020 edition of Vegetables Australia. The full publication will be released shortly.