MOVES are underway to try to resolve ongoing shortages in the Australian agricultural workforce, by overcoming “speculation” about the actual causes by generating current and reliable data.
Ahead of the federal budget being handed down on May 8, the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) has pressured the federal government by calling for funding to conduct comprehensive and regular analysis of the sector’s “persistent” labour shortages, with a view to implementing a dedicated agricultural visa to fill the gap.
Labour supply has been an ongoing headache for the farm sector with repeated calls for federal government support to plugs gaps through areas like foreign work visas, with estimates recently placing the job shortfall number at 100,000.
The Department of Agriculture’s inquiry submission said between August 2001 and 2011 the sector’s employment had dropped by 119,300 jobs (27 per cent) to 319,800 with the majority of job losses attributed to drought conditions and natural disasters.
That inquiry also said different regions faced different labour markets and specific workforce challenges.
“In Queensland and Western Australia where the impacts of the mining boom are especially pronounced, farmers and agribusinesses report significant trouble recruiting and retaining staff - mining typically pays significantly higher wages than agriculture,” the final report said.
“The committee heard that some jobs advertised in isolated areas received no response whatsoever from prospective workers.”
But last week, when asked about the NFF’s push for a dedicated agricultural visa during his National Press Club address, Acting Prime Minister and Nationals leader Michael McCormack said the issue was being pursued by his members.
“It's something we'll be discussing in our party room and I don't make announcements at the Press Club,” he said.
“It's better off to do it in our party room so that we…certainly make sure that we're all on the same page.
“When the visa program was altered, it did place some pressure on some industries to find suitable people who were willing to do the jobs whether it was in agriculture, whether it was in manufacturing, in so many industries, particularly in rural and regional Australia.
“I know that the Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, has been very good when members have gone to him to push the case for a particular visa holder sector to be able to get that work to fill those requirements in rural and regional Australia.”
Mr McCormack said an agricultural visa program was something that he knew the Agriculture and Water Resources Minister David Littleproud was working on, along with his Nationals colleagues, and “our regional Liberal friends”.
“It's something that we do need to address,” he said.
“Whilst we have these shortfalls in employment, the fruit doesn't get picked, the sheep don't get shorn.”
But Mr McCormack said sometimes it was a challenge to “convince our city political friends” that overseas workers were needed to fill job vacancies when in some areas there’s 27.5 per cent youth unemployment.
He said Australia also needed a more mobile workforce.
“We need people who are quite prepared to drive 40 or 50 kilometres to take a job, not just if they get laid off in an abattoir or a similar venture… to be content to sit at home and take welfare,” he said.
“We need people to be prepared to work and we'll do everything as a government to make sure that we, A, fill those positions, but, B, we people to fill those positions when they do become available domestically.”
NFF calls for identification of problem
The NFF’s 2018 pre-budget submission said the agriculture sector continued to “suffer” from a persistent labour shortage and there was “an abundance of speculation about possible causes of this shortage”.
That speculation included perceptions and misperceptions of work in the industry, the remoteness of farms, the ongoing population shift from rural to urban areas; “etcetera”, NFF said.
“However, by-and-large this speculation is based on individual experience, supposition and anecdote, rather than solid evidence - in fact there is very little current, comprehensive, and reliable data on the issue,” the submission said.
“Indeed, in our submission this lack of data regarding the agricultural labour market is itself a central part of the problem.
“It means that government and the sector cannot develop targeted measures to address it, and has led to fragmented, reactionary responses rather than sustainable solutions: sector supported or developed measures to attract a local workforce1; seasonal worker programs; working holiday makers programs.
“In addition, there are differing perceptions about the sector’s attitude to labour and conflicting opinions as to how its labour needs should be addressed.
“For example, various bodies have suggested that the domestic labour force should be adequate to meet the sector’s labour needs, and if farmers are not attracting enough workers then they simply need to increase wages and/or better plan to meet their workforce needs.
“Farmers, on the other hand, are adamant that the local workers cannot be attracted to the industry on a sustainable wage, while the nature of the industry makes effective workforce planning difficult if not impossible.
“However, these views are based largely on anecdote and individual experiences, not data reflecting the reality across the industry.”
The NFF budget submission said “this is not a new problem” and in 2010 Australian Farm Institute Managing Director Mick Keogh, had observed that ‘the first steps in seeking solutions to improve the availability of labour in agriculture is obtain a clear picture of both demand for and supply of labour in the sector’.
The NFF has called for a “regular, comprehensive” study of Australia’s agricultural labour needs which covers all aspects of labour in the sector across commodities and roles, including unskilled, low-skilled, semi-skilled and skilled workers.
The peak farm lobby group says that study should be conducted at least once every 24 months and should identify how labour is currently being supplied - where the employees are drawn from- the gaps in supply and demand, and how they may be addressed.
The Department of Agriculture’s 2011 Senate inquiry submission said despite recent industry job losses, significant shortages in labour and skills were expected “across virtually all regions and occupations in agriculture in the long term”.
It also said the sector had the largest share of mature age workers aged 55 years and older at 31pc and the lowest share of workers aged less than 35 years, at 22.1pc, compared to all other industries.
The high average age of the workforce suggests that employees exiting the workforce in the future are not being replaced by younger workers, it said, and agriculture faced competition from other sectors of the economy like mining to retain its existing workforce due to paying less remuneration.
The Department’s submission also said reasons for labour and skills shortages were; negative community perceptions of the industry; lack of availability of training providers in regional areas; and a move away from young people undertaking apprenticeships.
It also said in 2009-10 the gross value of agriculture, forestry and fisheries was $43.6 billion in contributing 3pc of the national GDP.
The NFF’s aspirational goal is to grow the Australian farm sector to $100b by 2030 with work force shortages categorised under “human talent” in its budget submission.
“Australia’s farmers are aging faster than the average Australian workforce - to ensure the future of agriculture, it is crucial to invest in people, to cultivate talent in agriculture by fostering a culture of agile learning and thinking, and to bring the next generation along and to attract new talent to the sector,” it said.
The 2015 Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper released by the Coalition government said the federal government was making changes to visa programs to improve their flexibility and ensure farmers have access to the foreign workers that occupy an important part of the sector’s labour supply.
It said the seasonal worker program would be expanded by removing the cap on the number of workers participating in it and increasing access for employers and Pacific Island countries.
The White Paper also said the working holiday (subclass 417) and work and holiday (subclass 462) visas would be expanded for those operating in the northern Australia zone, allowing agricultural employers to retain backpackers for an additional six months each visa year.
It said the government would also be giving subclass 462 visa holders access to a second 12 month visa if they work for three months in agriculture or tourism in northern Australia.
“It is important that the 457 visa program be responsive to genuine skill shortages and recognises the primacy of Australians for local jobs and training,” it said.
“The government also encourages the agriculture sector to work with it in developing template industry labour agreements to meet industry specific requirements that are not adequately covered.”
- Does this article interest you? Scroll down to the comments section and start the conversation. You only need to sign up once and create a profile in the Disqus comment management system for permanent access to all discussions.
The story Farm labour void remains politically problematic at budget time first appeared on Farm Online.