The Australian Government’s Seasonal Worker Program is proving helpful to fruit growers who can now employ people from eight Pacific Island countries and Timor-Leste to assist with fruit picking and other orchard work where local labour cannot be found.
Ask any grower in the horticulture sector and you’ll hear a consistent story – sourcing enough local labour to meet seasonal demand is tough, and more often than not, just not possible. Ask growers to speculate on why it’s so tough, and usually again, you’ll hear a consistent story. It could be because the work involves long hours, hard work, or cold or hot weather conditions. However, the very fact that it is seasonal in nature means that it isn’t always a popular choice.
This usually means that growers need to look to other forms of labour, like backpackers, to supplement their local workforce. This comes with its own set of problems however, because essentially backpackers work to fund their travel, or holiday around Australia. This means that while backpackers are often useful for short term peaks in demand, they don’t really help growers who need a more stable workforce, and a workforce that will be available in future seasons so that their investment in training and administration costs are not lost.
Since 2012, there has been an alternative option for growers nationwide who struggle to find not only enough labour, but enough reliable labour. The Seasonal Worker Program allows growers to source seasonal workers from eight Pacific Island countries and Timor-Leste when they can’t find enough local Australian workers.
Seasonal workers can work in Australia for as few as 14 weeks and as long as six months, and can return season after season. This means that growers have access to a reliable, increasingly experienced and efficient workforce.
A study conducted in late 2013 by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) found that first time seasonal workers were 22% more efficient than backpackers on a citrus farm in Queensland, and that returning seasonal workers were a further 12% more efficient.
Seasonal workers have worked in Australia on a wide range of horticultural crops, including a wide range of fruits and vegetables, nuts and flowers. An increasing number of apple growers across Australia are also accessing the program, and supplementing their local workforce with seasonal workers, including Newtown Orchards in Manjimup Western Australia, Vernview Pty Ltd in the Yarra Valley, Victoria, and Rivercorp Land and Water Pty Ltd in the Riverland region of South Australia.
Presenting at a Seasonal Worker Program conference, a representative from Newton Orchards reported on the findings of a Cost Benefit Analysis that, on average, the cost of having a seasonal worker pick apples for them was lower when compared to backpackers, due to lower wastage and greater productivity. This is despite the fact that seasonal workers are a bit more expensive than backpackers as the employer contributes to the workers’ airfare costs.
Rivercorp Pty Ltd had a similar experience, after recruiting workers from Vanuatu for harvesting apples, weeding, pruning, tree-training and erecting shade cloth. Ramona England from Rivercorp Land and Water Pty Ltd said that, since recruiting seasonal workers, productivity and morale had increased in their broader workforce.
“It is a pleasure teaching people who are happy and excited to gain and learn new skills, and a pleasure to have happy people coming to work with us,” said Ramona.
The opportunity to work in Australia, and earn Australian wages is very attractive to seasonal workers, who come from countries where earning potential is limited, and finding any employment difficult. Seasonal workers who have participated in the program have used the money they earned in Australia to pay for school fees for family members, to build houses, upgrade homes and invest in solar generators for remote villages.
The Seasonal Worker Program provides growers with piece of mind knowing that workers will turn up every day, that harvests will be completed with minimal wastage and it allows for more accurate workforce planning.
Apple and pear growers who have difficulty sourcing enough labour to meet seasonal demand should consider the Seasonal Worker Program. Participating in the program is easy. Growers can download and complete an application form to become an ‘Approved Employer’ of seasonal workers (called an Expression of Interest form) from the Seasonal Worker Program website, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (02) 6240 5234 and requesting an application form from the Seasonal Worker Program team in the Department of Employment.
Alternatively, growers can contact an existing Approved Employer, also listed on the Seasonal Worker Program website and access workers through an on-hire arrangement (labour hire).