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How is harvest labour changing?

Business Management

The 2021 harvest has been uniquely challenging for growers. 

Looking ahead to the 2022 harvest and beyond, there is the real risk the labour shortages will continue – although the Federal Government’s announcement of new Agricultural Visas is welcome news for the industry. 

What are the trends and opportunities for future harvests? 

Making harvest work attractive to Australians

Australian residents have been unwilling to take up harvest labour in the past, as the sporadic and seasonal nature of the work and travel requirements to remote parts of Australia make it unappealing for many. 

The Victorian Government’s recent extension to the Seasonal Harvest Sign-On Bonus may bolster the domestic harvest workforce. The Sign-On Bonus is paid by the state government on top of standard wages, and this could provide a model for other states or even federal labour initiatives. 

An international workforce

According to Jeremy Griffith, APAL Head of Government Relations & Advocacy, the introduction of an Agriculture Harvest Visa, as recently announced by the Federal Government, is another positive solution to the labour shortage.  

“An Ag Visa would allow workers from selected countries from SE Asia to work in Australia for a period of 9 months with fully accredited growers and employers,” Jeremy said. “We would also want workers to have the flexibility to work with other accredited growers and employers. Currently, the Working Holiday Visa recruits unskilled workers who are primarily motivated by wanting to extend their visa by a year by working in the ag sector, contributing to higher turnover and potentially lower productivity. 

“The new arrangements must also be supported by a dedicated quarantine pathway to bring in workers at scale,” Jeremy said. “And it must provide a safe environment for overseas workers, as well as a highly flexible workforce for the harvest season.” 

Pacific labour opportunities set to grow

The Federal Government is seeking feedback and consultation on the future of Australia’s labour mobility. Industry representatives have until 18 July to provide feedback on potential changes to the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) and the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS). 

This consultation aims to address workforce shortages in agriculture and find a way forward for post-COVID-19 worker mobility with the Pacific, and ensure that it grows in a streamlined, sustainable way, maintaining worker welfare.  

While demand for Pacific labour will only grow, changes in Horticulture Award are potentially making it less attractive. SWP pickers want to maximise pay during the season, but overtime restrictions mean growers must manage hours tightly to keep the work within cost. 

We have already expressed our support for further improvements to the SWP, and APAL will prepare a response on behalf of industry as part of the consultation process. 

All roads lead to automation 

With the on-going labour challenges, the potential for robotic harvest and automation is a key theme in day 2 of our APAL Forum 2021 – Grow Beyond. While there have been exciting developments in AgTech, we are still a few years away from automated harvests. 

We have already seen the benefit of harvest platforms in response to the COVID-19 labour shortages at a number of apple orchards over the past year. 

Platforms improve work environment and efficiency making it more attractive to a wider demographic due to less physically demanding work in carrying heavy bags and climbing ladders in high temperatures. 

Horticultural Piece Rate challenge

The Australian Workers Union (AWU) is seeking to enforce the payment of the minimum wage in the piece rate through an amendment to the Horticultural Award, arguing the piece rate is being exploited by unscrupulous growers.  

Currently, under the Horticulture Award, the piece rate allows workers to earn more than the minimum hourly rate but does not guarantee the minimum wage to be paid.   

According to Jeremy, this challenge to the piece rate could mean big changes for the seasonal casual workforce.  

“Any change would have a major impact upon the composition of the seasonal casual workforce and would make it unviable for the industry to employ some people, such as inexperienced young people, older people and people whose position in the labour force is tenuous,” Jeremy said.  

APAL is working with the broader industry to protect this provision. The Fair Work Commission is expected to hear the case in July 2021. 

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