The National Farmers Federation has rejected Scott Morrison’s plan to fill unskilled agricultural vacancies with local unemployed and accused the government of treating farmers with contempt.
The annual shortfall in fruit pickers hurts small farms in particular. Estimates range considerably but there are likely to be tens of thousands of vacant jobs.
Mr Morrison told The Australian he is launching an initiative to link Australians who receive unemployment benefits with job opportunities on farms, and enforce penalties if unemployed jobseekers refuse work.
“This is about doing everything we can to ensure Australian jobs are being filled by Australians,” Mr Morrison said.
Industrial Relations Minister Kelly O’Dwyer said the government would help match people on the Jobactive program with on-farm vacancies
NFF president Fiona Simson said the plan is destined to fail.
“Of course we want Australians to fill jobs on Aussie farms. Farmers have been trying to do that for years. But the reality is this latest attempt is unlikely to bear fruit (or get much picked for that matter),” Ms Simson said.
“What is needed is a dedicated agricultural visa.”
Ms Simson said the ag sector had tried and failed to fill unskilled jobs with locals, but Australians’ financial commitments and long term career aspirations have proved an insurmountable challenge.
“(The government’s) plan to encourage workers onto farms using a carrot and stick approach might be well intentioned, but shows a lack of understanding of the issue,” Ms Simson said.
“If the government will not deliver an Agricultural Visa in the short term, we need dedicated changes to the existing schemes that will make a difference to farmers this season.
“The Government’s announcement to ‘examine options if needed’ simply treats farmers with contempt.”
Labor agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon said Mr Morrison’s plan to distract from the government’s failed policy.
The NFF has campaigned for several years for a new class of visa that reduces cost and red tape in the application process and allows workers to move between smaller farms during the harvest period.
In September, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said an announcement on an new class of ag visa was just weeks away, but the idea was quickly shot down.
An announcement was abandoned after concerns were raised by Pacific Island nations that the ag visa would disrupt their existing seasonal worker programs.
Workers from these countries make a substantial contribution to their local economies, earning a collective $150 million a year in wages from annual seasonal work.
It is likely that South East Asian workers would comprise the majority of initial beneficiaries from an ag visa.
The need for a solution to the workforce shortfall grows by the day, and is a headache that the new PM doesn’t need in marginal regional electorates.
The mango pick is underway in northern Australia, stone fruit harvesting in southern states starts in November and other summer fruit mainstays will be ready soon.
Larger horticultural companies, with long-term harvest demands, tend to be best placed to participate in the Pacific Island worker schemes.
Smaller horticulture companies have smaller picking requirements and find it harder to attract Pacific Islander workers and to satisfy the scheme requirements.