Adjournment debate – My adjournment is for the Minister for Agriculture in the other place. The action I seek is for the Minister to meet with fruit grower representatives in the Goulburn Valley to discuss their need to have access to seasonal workers for the forthcoming harvest.
The Goulburn Valley is widely known for its horticulture footprint, often referred to as the food bowl of Australia, the region produces close to 25% of the total value of Victoria’s agricultural production.
Growers in my community have welcomed the funding announcement by the Minister to address aspects of this problem, but remain concerned that they will not have the labour force this harvest due to COVID-19 restrictions which has limited the flow of the international workforce that usually backpack within our regions and travel to our farms, securing fruit picking work.
The number of people in Australia on working holiday visas has almost halved since international borders closed, falling from about 140,000 to 73,500 earlier this month.
Goulburn Valley farmers also rely on the Australian Governments’ Seasonal Workers Program and Pacific Labour Scheme to support their labour needs. The Program connects Pacific Island Workers to our farms – who travel to our region to work in harvest seasons, and pick the fruit on our farms.
There have been discussions on how to connect those now unemployed to the agriculture sector given the rate is at its highest level in more than two decades.
An interim federal report of the inquiry into the Working Holiday Maker (WHM) Program has made a number of recommendations to help meet labour demands in agriculture – which include incentives such as HECS and HELP fees for university courses be discounted to attract students to work on farms; enable workers to stay on JobSeeker payments while undertaking low paid agricultural and horticultural work; and a one-off payment to help with the travel and accommodation costs incurred, to be paid after a certain period of time working in regional, rural and remote areas.
There is scope to try incentivising and connect local workforce with job opportunities – however that alone, will not be the full solution.
What was clear from the report is that the Federal Government will need to work with State and Territory governments and industry peak bodies to recruit additional people under the Seasonal Worker Program and Pacific Labour Scheme to fill urgent shortfalls. This raises questions about workers entering the country and the likely need for them to be quarantined. It will need a cooperative approach to be worked out as soon as possible so that contractual arrangements with workers in the Pacific Islands can be entered into now.
We have seen that already this year around 160 seasonal workers from Vanuatu landed in Darwin, as part of a trial program to fill a labour shortage for the Northern Territory’s mango harvest. The work needs to be done both here in Victoria and at a federal level to ensure that our Goulburn Valley fruit harvest is picked.