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Early harvest confirms labour challenge

Industry Advocacy

Early indications suggest Australian apple producers will begin harvest slightly earlier than in prior years, but the final volume, quality and timing will ultimately be determined by the availability of harvest labour.

Across the course of 2020 APAL has continued to develop estimates of labour needs for the apple and pear industry.

APAL Head of Government Relations & Advocacy, Jeremy Griffith said APAL has continued to update this data, share it with industry and table it before governments to demonstrate the scale and urgency of the labour problem.

Estimating crop loss

The NFF’s National Crop Loss Register is already reporting crop losses of almost $40 million across the horticulture sector to date. Apple and pear producers are encouraged to add their estimates to this survey as their harvest begins.

APAL Industry Services Manager, Justin Smith said the crop loss estimates do not take into account the crop load decisions made by individual producers in anticipation of limited harvest labour supply.

“Around November each year growers across Australia head into the orchards to thin their crop load,” Justin said. “Usually, the thinning program is designed to improve the quality, colour or size of the fruit – unfortunately this year many orchardists were forced to thin good quality fruit because they were not confident they would have the labour to pick the fruit come harvest.”

Generous incentives available

Jeremy said the discussions at all levels of government and across industry had resulted in significant financial incentives to mobilise local labour including remaining backpackers and unemployed, however excessive bureaucracy remained a real challenge.  Further, while all states have indicated a willingness to re-activate the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP), only Queensland, Northern Territory, Western Australia and Tasmania have implemented it. Not surprisingly, there remains a high level of anxiety within government to opening international borders.

“While not perfect, and constantly changing, there has also been some streamlining of cross border and intrastate arrangements to assist the movement of labour between regions,” said Jeremy.

With the apple and pear harvest commencing after the summer fruits, berries and mangoes, APAL was hopeful these early harvest experiences would yield positive interest from local labour sources and provide an opportunity to iron-out labour supply systems and programs.

“It is always hard to predict the actual level of interest until the harvest begins but it appears the incentives – while attractive – have not been sufficient to overcome the costs and challenges of relocating for temporary employment,” said Jeremy.

“At this late stage we are continuing to urge all levels of government to minimise unnecessary paperwork and processes that can create real obstacles to potential pickers taking up these incentives. It would be disappointing to see these generous incentives provided but not used because of administration obstacles,” said Jeremy.

Vaccine roll-outs give hope

“We remain optimistic that the efforts our growers have put into planning their crop load and labour needs will see them through the harvest, but we are all very aware of what the season could have been,” said Justin.

“With Australia’s vaccine roll out commencing earlier than initially planned, and vaccine roll outs already underway overseas we are confident the immediate labour issues will improve over the course of 2021 and will not exist at this level for 2022.

“This should give governments and industry confidence to pull out all the stops to address current seasonal issues. The only long-term commitment anyone is making is it to ensure our fruit and vegetable producers are there to rebound in 2022 and beyond,” said Justin.

Covid-19 information

Please click on the links below for more state-specific information on COVID-19:

Harvest labour programs and incentives

Please click on the links below for more specific information on harvest labour incentives and support

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