Small business and the harvest trail – cherries, stalks, pips and jobs

This was written for COSBOA back in September after some announcements around the harvest trail, but in the midst of all the chaos about Victoria and the Federal Budget, we never put it up. There is still real concern that there will be a lot of fruit left to rot this summer so I decided to post this here.

Horticulture businesses reliant on backpackers are facing critical labour shortages as the harvest season approaches. Because international and state borders closed during the COVID pandemic, the flow of harvest workers across the country has largely ceased.

The harvest trail is vital to our economy and the health of a key historical industry - agriculture. Without a harvest workforce, fresh food supply chains in Australia and our export markets are facing severe disruption. Many regions could go into decline.

Australian consumers and major Australian industries are heavily reliant upon the harvest workforce, and many small businesses are fundamentally linked to the immense harvest activities undertaken in Australia.

The small businesses involved, besides the farmers and horticulturalists, include owner drivers in transport, grocery operators, dry food processors, juice manufacturers, boutique food sellers and processors, accommodation businesses, service stations, retailers throughout regional Australia, restaurant and café owners, the boutique food sector, and so forth.

The Federal Government announced in the October budget financial incentives for unemployed Australians to do harvest work. The Government also has the power to authorise the entry of seasonal workers from overseas and recently advised it will facilitate the issuing of documents for seasonal workers coming from the Pacific. A special arrangement has already been made to allow 160 workers from Vanuatu to enter Australia to work on the Northern Territory mango harvest.

We support the current efforts by the Federal Government and believe there is more that can be done. The number of harvest workers is not likely to return to pre-COVID numbers for some time, so certain measures must be implemented to improve the current situation for SMEs in these industries.

Not all state governments have agreed to allow guest workers to enter their jurisdictions during the COVID pandemic. State governments need to understand the depth of the harvest crisis and become part of the solution. The states can further assist by enabling harvest workers to cross state borders in a COVID-safe manner. They can also assist by providing financial support to the horticulture industry.

As a COVID emergency measure, the Federal Government should implement further temporary changes to the rules relating to the JobSeeker allowance to address perceptions of inadequate remuneration in the fruit picking industry. These changes should allow unemployed people to earn income from harvest work while retaining their full JobSeeker payment. This would be for a limited period only, e.g. for the first 8 weeks of a person’s time as a harvest worker, effectively operating as a subsidy to Australian harvest workers while they are learning the skills they need to make a good living.

The cost of travel to harvest regions is also a major barrier for unemployed people. A small travel assistance grant (between $300 and $500) could be provided (in the form of a debit card for travel costs and accommodation) to unemployed people to take up a harvest job. The existing program - Relocation Assistance to take up a Job (RATTUAJ) - only applies to full-time ongoing employment, so is not applicable to seasonal work.

In the longer term, the problems of seasonal labour force shortages need to be addressed. Even when the pandemic is over the horticulture industry will continue to face an annual struggle to find enough suitable labour, and this will impact associated small and big businesses. COSBOA supports the development of a national workforce plan to addresses long-standing issues like seasonal workforce shortages.

It wasn’t always like this.

In the 1960s and early 1970s school leavers would often go ‘fruit picking’ while preparing for university and during university holidays. That culture changed some time ago to one where ‘professionals’ became more involved. A number of skilled and experienced pickers, often families, travelled the harvest trail in caravans. Show people also did harvest work when shows and carnivals were not in action. These people knew where the pay was good and who were the good employers. But in the last two decades horticulture and viticulture enterprises have become increasingly reliant on backpackers and guest workers to harvest crops.

We know that the Australian horticulture, viticulture, and agriculture industries operate in highly competitive domestic and international markets. While these industries have continued to modernise their operations and adopt new technologies, horticulture is labour intensive and mostly seasonal.

We now have a comparatively strong Australian labour market with high wages in most sectors.

As a result, there is a public perception of low wages and challenging working conditions in the harvest industry, leading to a reluctance by Australian workers to undertake the harvest work. The horticulture sector needs to address the perception of low wages and make the harvest trail more attractive.

The great Australian outdoors and agriculture sector is a wonderful place to work; we just need to make it as attractive as it truly can be.