By Growcom CEO David Thomson

Confirming what had already been long suspected, the Victorian Farmers Federation’s (VFF’s) Horticulture Labour Case Study released last week revealed a significant proportion of the casual workforce is comprised of foreigners without the necessary legal entitlements, better known as undocumented workers.

The anonymous survey undertaken in the Sunraysia region revealed 71% of farmers believed they’d had undocumented workers on their farms. More than 5,000 fruit pickers in the district were found to be working without a visa, counting for 28% of the workforce.

While not strictly representative of the rest of the country, these Victorian results bring into focus an issue shared across Australian horticulture.

The large proportion of the casual workforce comprised of undocumented workers puts growers between a rock and a hard place. By raising the alarm growers risk compromising their own livelihoods. And by raising the alarm, what long term, strategic and structural reforms from government are likely to result? The answer to date has been none.

With seemingly little to gain, here we are as an industry putting this issue on the table ourselves. It casts a shadow over our entire industry which simply isn’t fair for the large number of growers who are doing the right thing.

Government however remains unresponsive to calls from industry bodies for an agriculture-specific visa and status resolution for undocumented workers.

Meanwhile, in addition to undocumented workers, there are currently a multitude of interdependent issues affecting labour supply in horticulture that must be considered and addressed together.

Recent changes to the Horticulture Award have created an enormous amount of disruption, the effects of which are yet to fully materialise across the industry as summer harvest seasons commence. In response to Award changes growers are already moving toward using piecework rates and labour hire contractors, creating new pressures and uncertainty.

And we are a growing and increasingly technologically sophisticated industry, and so sourcing appropriately trained and skilled workers remains a challenge.

So labour supply in horticulture is in need of a systematic review.

We are asking the Australian Government, together with state and territory counterparts, to grasp this nettle and embark on all-encompassing review of our labour supply in open collaboration with industry and the full range of agencies with skin in this game.