As labour shortfalls continue to hinder our farmers, more must be done to incentivise young Australians into the agricultural industry.
To ensure long-term growth and profitability there must be more done to facilitate employment pathways into the agricultural industry. The federal government must take stronger action to bolster our farming sector and make sure it is purpose-built for the future.
The agricultural industry, stimulated by improved seasonal conditions, has remained the second fastest-growing sector, contributing 2.3% to Australia’s GDP (or $63 billion) and is set to reach $100 billion in output by 2030. Scalability, however, is heavily dependent on addressing the labour crisis. The farming sector provides over 1.6 million jobs, but for sustained growth more needs to be done to give farmers confidence in their ability to recruit and maintain a labour-force.
The labour crisis is not a new problem. From 2018 as many as 60% of growers in the fruit and vegetable sector reported experiencing difficulty securing workers. This has subsequently led to significant amounts of produce loss and wastage. Labour shortfalls in the dairy industry result in $364 million dollar losses annually.
These labour struggles have resulted in farming businesses relying heavily on working migrants to fill seasonal roles. The onset of COVID-19 eradicated this source of labour, having a devastating effect on farming business’s ability to harvest their produce. Persistent international border restrictions have immobilised the migrant workforce resulting in an additional shortfall of 26,000 workers. With international travel bans in place for the foreseeable future, there is an urgent need to address labour shortfalls and begin to implement policy that fosters agricultural employment now and well into the future.
With 80% of farmers reporting difficulty with recruiting workers, the consequences are far-reaching affecting all Australians with restricted food supplies and increased food prices. To provide relief to farming businesses, innovative thinking is needed to safeguard our agricultural industry and pave the way to economic recovery and renewed prosperity.
In response to COVID-19, temporary changes to visa arrangements for the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) were announced. These have:
- Allow Pacific workers under the SWP and the Pacific Labour Scheme to continue working in the agriculture sector until the crisis has passed.
- Let workers with new visas remain in Australia and continue working for up to 12 months.
- Continue the sponsorship arrangements between Pacific workers and their employers.
While these measures have been warmly welcomed by the agricultural community, they only provide temporary relief for farming businesses. Instead of reactionary policies, the Federal Government must consider long-lasting initiatives that nurture sustained agricultural employment pathways.
Plunged into a recession in 2020, Australia’s economic forecast for 2021 is a lot better than initially predicted, largely thanks to the agricultural industry that has remained strong. With COVID-19 numbers remaining low and restrictions winding back, Australia is in an enviable position. Still, there are significant challenges to overcome. Rising trade tensions with China are hitting Australian farmers hard. Unemployment figures remain high, and many industries are greatly burdened by international travel restrictions and a lack of consumer confidence.