The shortage of seasonal harvest labour in Australia continues to choke the productivity of the horticulture industry with the National Lost Crop Register recently topping $50 million.  

Growers from all around the country continue to report losses as a direct result of insufficient labour for harvest. Reports have come from banana growers in North Queensland, vegetable growers in Victoria, melon and grape growers in Western Australia, mango growers in the Northern Territory and most crops and regions in between. 

Growcom’s Chief Executive Officer, Stephen Barnard, said that not only is the current labour shortage impacting businesses and livelihoods today, but also that a lack of confidence in the steps taken by government to resolve the shortage is causing many growers to reconsider and reduce their plans for future production.

“We are hearing from a significant proportion of growers who have already experienced crop losses due to a lack of labour that they are, perhaps unsurprisingly, looking at cutting back production, and some in a big way” he said.

The Register allows growers to anonymously report whether or not they plan to reduce their production over the next six months at least partially because of a shortage of labour. 

Four in ten growers said they were planning to reduce production by between 10% and 50%. A further 7 percent of growers said they were slashing their production by more than half. Just under 40% reported they’d keep production the same as the previous year. 

“The risk here, albeit small, is that many growers making rational business decisions in their own interest, when taken together, could undermine our food security as a nation,” said Mr Barnard.

“This is a risk that will obviously continue to grow until we have more people willing and able to get involved with the harvest.” 

Labour situation continues to deteriorate

Meanwhile the number of workers likely to take up a job in horticulture continues to erode as the COVID-19 pandemic draws out. 

Growcom Manager of Policy and Advocacy, Richard Shannon, said the same analysis that found the industry would have 26,000 roles unfilled by March also confirmed backpackers accounted for three quarters of all casual workers in horticulture.

“Latest figures from the Department of Home Affairs suggests backpackers continue to leave the country at a rate of more than 1,300 per week. It’s clear we’re yet to hit the bottom in terms of the number of casual workers out there looking for farm work,” he said.

“From a normal backpacker population of around 140,000 we’re now down to less than 50,000. Our labour situation will continue to deteriorate until either international travel resumes or the success of government interventions to either attract Australians to our industry or recruit workers from Pacific Island radically improves.

“Until then many growers will continue to do it tough. Many with their peak harvest seasons soon approaching are staring down the barrel of significant losses. And so consumers should expect to pay more in the grocery aisle.”

Government asleep at the wheel

National Farmers’ Federation CEO Tony Mahar said the seasonal labour shortage has been predicted since the very start of the pandemic and that the industry has gone from concerned to alarmed at the lack of interest shown by many governments around the country.

“The lack of action from governments has clearly caused growers to reconsider planting their next crop. What the future impact on food supply will be is anyone’s guess, but it will be governments, state, territory and federal, that now own the result.

“Back in April last year when the Prime Minister was telling backpackers to go home, industry was instead saying we should be encouraging them to stay, keep working, and putting them on a pathway to permanent residency.

“It’s never going to be too late to start turning this labour shortage around. We need decisive action from the National Cabinet. 

“We need a solution for the quarantine of seasonal workers from Pacific Island countries at a scale that meets the needs of growers. 

“And the Federal Government needs to err on the side of caution and create powerful incentives for Australians to take up harvest jobs. This could include adding even more speed to the Youth Allowance fast track for students or special provisions for unemployed to keep JobSeeker payments while working in horticulture.

“Longer term we need structural reform of our seasonal workforce and reduce our dependence on any one source of labour.”

Growers urged to report losses

The National Lost Crop Register was launched in December to quantify the true cost to industry and the national economy from a lack of seasonal workers available to harvest fresh fruits and vegetables.

The register will remain open as long as labour shortages continue to impact production. Growers can record their losses anonymously at: https://bit.ly/NationalLostCropRegister.