20/04/2020 - 15:27

Food producers’ labour squeeze

20/04/2020 - 15:27

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SPECIAL REPORT: Securing workers has become a major concern for food producers across Western Australia, with restrictions on movement and border closures affecting their ability to find temporary staff.

Food producers’ labour squeeze
Many jobs in WA’s food production chains, from picking to packing, are filled by temporary overseas workers. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Securing workers has become a major concern for food producers across Western Australia, with restrictions on movement and border closures affecting their ability to find temporary staff.

International travellers make up the bulk of a highly mobile and transitional agricultural workforce in WA, and with borders shut and regional travel locked down, concerns are rising that labour may not be readily available over the next 12 months.

Earlier this month, the federal government made several temporary changes to its agricultural visa programs, allowing farm-based backpackers to remain in Australia for the duration of the pandemic.

The changes, applying to the Seasonal Worker Program and Pacific Labour Scheme workers, included an exemption from a previous requirement that backpackers only work with an individual employer for six months, allowing for stays to be extended for up to 12 months.

(click here to view a PDF of this special report)

Even with those changes, WAFarmers Federation chief executive Trevor Whittington told a recent Business News leadership roundtable it was becoming difficult to source skilled workers in particular.

“For most of our guys who may now want to find labour, there has been a mad scramble when their New Zealanders or their regular overseas skilled tractor drivers have not been able to come in,” Mr Whittington said.

“So people have been racing around to find some replacement labour.”

Mr Whittington said he expected around 20,000 positions would need to be filled over the next year in WA horticulture.

“Some of them will be hard to fill because the Asian kids who usually would come in for the English language courses aren’t here,” he said.

Member for North West Central Vince Catania acknowledged the importance of the temporary changes, but said he remained concerned in regards to Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s early April statement that backpackers without a job should go home.

Mr Catania said he was particularly worried by the prospect there may not be a workforce available for WA food producers in around six to eight weeks’ time.

“Recent regional border closures preventing travel has resulted in a number of international backpackers being in Carnarvon and other regional towns without work for the next few weeks and with limited funds,” he said.

“Unable to travel within WA, many are not in a position to be able to return to their home countries due to limited or no flight availability, or a need to preserve the safety of their health and delay returning to their countries due to dire COVID-19 situations.

“Given that rigid travel restrictions and social distancing requirements may be in place for at least six months, impacting small businesses, tourism and the ability for food producers to be able to source workers required to harvest winter crops, it is essential that as a region and a town we plan to remain as sustainable as possible within the realms of what we have today in terms of resources.”

Mr Catania urged the federal government to consider extending all visas to include an ability to work in other industries until seasonal work became available, and to evaluate the possibility of subsidies for those who provide accommodation for backpackers experiencing financial stress while waiting for job opportunities.

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