By Growcom Interim CEO Pat Hannan

In this same column back in mid-March Growcom first signalled our serious concern for the security of our labour supply as a result of COVID-19.

Six months have now passed, and we’ve since not just dedicated another six columns in the Country Life on this subject, but spent a large amount of resources in confirming the true extent of the problem and in submitting a number of ideas to state and federal governments for addressing it.     

Just as we won’t be claiming any special powers of foresight, as many others also saw this shortage coming, we also won’t be accepting the suggestion this problem has only just been discovered.

What we are witnessing right now is a massive and long predicted problem that is really starting to bite. Growers are witnessing huge drops in worker availability. So what we need right now is urgent action.

Again, as we’ve recommended, we need to throw the kitchen sink at this shortage in labour and explore all options available to us.

We need to stem the flow of backpackers out of the country, and then ultimately turn that flow around and into a net positive.

Early in the pandemic the Federal Government gave permission to backpackers already in the country to leave and restart their visa at a time in the future. That decision was made to encourage backpackers to leave. We now need to give them reason to stay.

Consideration should be given to offering backpackers a pathway to permanent residency. We rely as a nation on net migration to stimulate economic growth. With all travel now curtailed, we need to keep as many visitors in Australia as we can, not just for our immediate harvest needs but our future prosperity.

Even if we turn the backpacker tide, we still need to attract many more Australians into seasonal work. We’re already down to half the backpackers in the country as we’d normally have. And its estimated we’re losing another thousand each week.

Given how much we’re already short, it’s thought that from here on in we’ll need to find two local workers for every backpacker who leaves. That’s two thousand a week.

The mix of incentives required to attract Australian workers into horticulture simply aren’t in place. Offering allowances to relocate to regional areas to take up seasonal work would be a promising start.