Farmers implore all states to support code

10th September 2020 | Eativity editors

National Farmers’ Federation Chief Executive Tony Mahar has thanked the Premiers of NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Chief Ministers of the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory for their commitment to adopt consistent principles and protocols that will oversee the movement of agricultural workers and equipment.

But he says it’s disappointing the Premiers of Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania were at this stage not prepared to support a nationally-consistent Agriculture Workers Movement Code, as recommended by farmers.

“Regardless, five out of eight is a step in the right direction, ensuring agriculture can keep operating without unreasonable delays and barriers, while safeguarding public health.”

It’s hoped that, given the passage of time and a continuing decrease in active cases, all states will support the code. Time really is of the essence right now – across the country, the farm sector is going into its busiest time of the year: summer fruits are almost ready for picking and the harvest of a bumper grain crop will start from the end of October.

Summer fruits are almost ripe for the picking, but this season, who will pick them?

A depletion of the foreign labour force has left farmers anxious about how they’ll pick and pack this year’s crop – or even whether they should plant for next season. And if food can’t be harvested, or there’s no food to harvest, we all suffer as a consequence.

“Farmers grow food and fibre for all Australians,” Mahar says. “For example, Sydneysiders enjoy mangoes from Kununurra and bananas from north Queensland. As a Federation, we’re not set up to function within hard borders.”

But the problem is not just one affecting the current harvest – farmers are worried about seasons to come. The ABC has reported the sad story of a Western Australian apple grower who was forced to pull out more than 1500 15-year-old apple trees to make way for a less labour-intensive avocado crop, as he believes he’ll be unable to find the workers to help with an apple harvest. There are many other farmers in the region who fear they’ll be impacted by labour shortages for several years to come.

More needs to be done to attract local workers.

A plan to get more hands on deck

The NFF Horticulture Council has provided governments with 10 measures to attract Aussies to farm work and begin a controlled, safe restart to foreign worker visa programs. Mahar says the Federal Government’s decision to let each state “opt in” to a controlled restart of targeted recruitment via the Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme was a positive step, but really only amounts to “tinkering at the edges”.

“In an ordinary year, farmers rely on a combination of local and foreign labour to get the job done,” Mahar says. “Ideally, this year we’d like to see Australians fill roles performed by backpackers and seasonal workers, but the reality is, more support is needed to attract the required number of local workers.”

The Horticulture Council’s 10-point approach includes the following measures:

1. Seasonal Worker Programme Pilot Extension
2. Incentives for domestic displaced workers
3. Agricultural Workforce Code introduction
4. Promotion of opportunities to work in agriculture
5. Accommodation support
6. Establishing a National Agricultural Workforce Development Network
7. National Labour Hire Regulation
8. Working Holidaymaker Restart
9. Agriculture Visa
10. Horticulture Industry Labour Agreement additional occupations