The Prime Minister’s captain’s call linking farm labour vacancies with welfare payments has the horticulture sector in uproar, while worker shortfalls remain the number one concern as the crucial fruit picking season gets into swing.
On Saturday Prime Minister Scott Morrison said welfare recipients who turned down a job offer without a reasonable excuse would lose their payment for up to four weeks.
Farmer groups were blindsided by the plan. It is understood the PM’s office developed the plan over the past two weeks.
The plan is thin on detail, but Mr Morrison described it as a “holistic package” to ensure Australians get first crack at job opportunities.
He listed three elements. Firstly, farmers register their needs with the National Harvest Labour Information Service.
Labour demands are linked to government’s Jobactive welfare program so “fit and able” people are placed in farm vacancies.
Any gaps left in the farm workforce would be filled with Working Holiday Maker visas and Pacific Island labour schemes.
“We want to help job seekers find a great local job, and help farmers find great workers,” the PM said in a statement.
Industry, which lists chronic shortages as the biggest issue impacting horticulture, slammed the PM’s plan, arguing that unfilled fruit and vegetable work was unattractive and unsuited to permanent Australian residents, as it is typically short term, seasonally sporadic and requires significant travel as harvest rolled across the country.
To supplement the Pacific Island and holiday visa intake, industry is lobbying for a dedicated agriculture visa that reduces cost and red tape in the application process and allows workers to move between smaller farms during the harvest period.
Under the Seasonal Worker Program, workers must be provided a minimum average of 30 hours per week for up to six months.
Larger horticultural companies, with long-term harvest demands, tend to be best placed to participate in the Pacific Island worker schemes.
Smaller farmers, with smaller picking requirements, cannot guarantee work for extended periods.
They need motivated workers who are prepared for tough ag work, that requires them to move from farm to farm as harvest rolls on.
In September Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said an announcement on a new class of ag visa was just weeks away. But that was abandoned after concerns were raised by Pacific Island nations about disruption to their existing seasonal worker programs.
There is considerable confusion over the future of the ag visa.
Many had assumed recent moves showed the government had ruled it out, but Mr Morrison told parliament yesterday no determination had been made.
"The government has made no decision about not having such a visa in the future," he said.
National Farmers’ Federation president Fiona Simson said the PM’s welfare 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.
“The Government’s announcement to ‘examine options if needed’ simply treats farmers with contempt.”
Rachel Mackenzie is chief advocate for Queensland’s peak horticulture group, Growcom.
“Our industry is not the scapegoat for the government’s unemployment settings. The Prime Minister has tried to kill two birds with one stone, and missed both,” Ms Mackenzie said.
“There’s a place for seasonal workers and a place for an ag visa, too.
“What we don’t need is a knee-jerk announcement, we need a detailed analysis of workforce needs.”
Ms Mackenzie said many unskilled labouring jobs were filled by workers on “dodgy” student visas - who are nominally restricted to 20 hours employment a week.
“There are lots of intriguing ways to get around the restrictions,” she said.
“One grower had 65 workers walk off the job because he wouldn’t pay in cash, for example.
“We need to acknowledge that those people already working in horticulture show that our visa settings aren’t right.
“Let’s get an ag visa to allow them to work legally.”
Ms Mackenzie cited a recent initiative by the strawberry industry that targeted Australian workers to highlight labour challenges. It involved the Moreton Bay Shire Council, the Sunshine Coast Shire Council and Growcom.
The Sweetest Job campaign included 10 growers who nominated for the program.
There was over 2000 initial registrations from job seekers and one thousand job seekers filled in an initial screening survey to determine suitability - in terms of availability and capacity. 126 were interviewed and 52 people secured a placement.
However, three months down the track only around half of those are still working on farm.
Ms Mackenzie said the figures aren’t a negative reflection on the job seekers, but shows how the variable nature of the work can be challenging for anyone with a family who cannot commit to working flexible hours, or lacks transport or consistent work.