Harvest horror: 26,000 people short

30th September 2020 | Eativity editors

A recently released report from Ernst & Young, commissioned by Hort Innovation, has found that the Australian fruit and vegetable industry is facing a workforce shortage of up to 26,000 people throughout a peak summer season that’s expected to yield bumper crops. A shortage of workers will have a real impact on consumers, with price increases and likely shortages of fruit and vegies in supermarkets.

The Australian Fresh Produce Alliance (AFPA) has previously welcomed the restart of the Seasonal Worker Programme, allowing workers from the Pacific to come to Australia and help to pick fruit and vegetables. Despite this, no new workers have arrived in Australia, leaving many growers without a workforce to harvest their crops.

“We have been working with relevant state and territory governments, as well as federal departments, to assist in restarting this program, but still, no new workers have arrived in Australia and in most states we’re at least six to 10 weeks away from that even looking likely” says AFPA CEO, Michael Rogers.

With no one to pick their fruit, some growers have resorted to destroying crops.

The restart of the Seasonal Worker Programme, as well as incentives to attract Australians to undertake harvest work, have been on the top of industry’s priorities for months, however, few Australians have taken up state government incentives to do harvest work. This is despite a $3 million campaign in Western Australia, a $17 million campaign in Victoria, a $1.9 million campaign in Tasmania and a $1.1 million campaign in Queensland.

Meanwhile, industry workforce shortages are now urgent, with growers in Western Australia and Queensland having already destroyed or are in the process of destroying crops due to a lack of available harvest workers.

“This week, a citrus grower in Queensland is bulldozing hectares of citrus because he is not confident of there being labour available now, into 2021 and beyond,” Rogers says. “That’s a decision worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and several full-time jobs for Australians.”

Without workers to pick crops, consumers can expect less fruit and higher prices.

This year, only 6600 of the usual 12,000 Seasonal Worker Programme workers were able to travel to Australia. Industry is desperately seeking an urgent arrival of Pacific workers to make up this shortfall and contribute to filling the predicted 26,000-person shortage.

“With no certainty around workforce, it’s likely growers will reduce plantings and planned harvests because of fewer workers,” Rogers says. “We can’t be any clearer – there will be fewer fruit and vegetables available in the supermarket and there will be higher prices if we cannot start addressing the shortfall in workforce.”

Industry is calling for Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania state governments to immediately prioritise the arrival of seasonal workers from the Pacific to ensure Australian families have access to fresh fruit and vegetables.

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