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Worker shortage holds farmers to ransom

8 March 2019

Some farmers are being forced to choose between leaving their produce on the vine to rot and breaking the law, a new report has found.

The three-year in-depth look of Australian horticulture's labour challenges was led by University of Adelaide, Law Professor Dr Joanna Howe, commissioned by VegetablesWA and supported by the National Farmers' Federation.

Towards a Durable Future: Tackling Labour Challenges in the Australian Horticulture Industry identifies a chronic shortage of legitimate, willing and capable workers within certain growing regions.

The Report's National Survey of Vegetable Growers, found that 40% of those surveyed indicated they had not been able to recruit sufficient pickers, packers and graders at some point in the past five years. Sixty-three per cent of them reported leaving vegetables unpicked.

The Report found that to get the job done, many growers depended on unreliable and ill-suited forms of labour. NFF CEO Tony Mahar said the findings made for difficult reading.

"Dr Howe confirms the stark reality that some growers feel they are forced to rely upon 'undocumented' migrants who work and remain in Australia, in breach of their visa conditions and to engage in practices which do not comply with Australian labour standards.

"'Undocumented' workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, sometimes by the growers themselves, but more often at the hands of rogue 'labour hire' operators.

"As an industry, we have zero tolerance for worker exploitation. It is a large part of the reason that the sector commissioned and actively supported Dr Howe's study," Mr Mahar said.

"However, to adequately address the issues, we must first understand why some farmers feel they have no choice but to act illegally.

"By far the majority of farmers who don't comply do so inadvertently or because they feel their only other option is to let their crop spoil and therefore forsake a year's income."

The NFF continues to call for the introduction of an Agricultural Visa to ease horticulture's labor crisis and to prevent worker exploitation.

"A tailored Ag Visa would ensure workers have entered Australia via legal and legitimate means; are working in accordance with visa conditions, and that their presence in the Australian workforce is transparent. Importantly, it would protect against exploitation.

"Only growers who could demonstrate their compliance with the law would be able to access the program.

"An Ag Visa would also have safeguards to ensure workers know their rights, know who to turn to, and are not bullied into thinking that they have to put up with mistreatment."

Mr Mahar said programs such as GrowCom's Fair Farms initiative were important to better inform growers of their obligations and to educate workers on their rights.

The NFF also welcomed the Government's commitment this week to finalise a National Labour Hire Licence Scheme.

Mr Mahar said industry needed to continue to work with retailers to encourage more equitable returns for produce and to better educate consumers on the true costs of producing food.

"Ultimately the objective is to improve farmers' returns and farm workers' wages. Wages are one of the largest expenses in a grower's overall production costs.

"Of course the ongoing priority challenge is to strengthen and expand our domestic farm workforce."

Solving agriculture's worker deficit was paramount to agriculture achieving a farm gate output value of $100 billion by 2030 and a key component of NFF's 2030 Roadmap.

Read the Towards a Durable Future: Tackling Labour Challenges in the Australian Horticulture Industry Report here mk0australianfa1qtvu.kinstacdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Towards-a-Durable-Future-REPORT_.pdf

Media Enquiries: Laureta Wallace
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P 0408 448 250

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