By Growcom CEO Stephen Barnard

If there’s going to be any silver lining from the disruption caused by COVID-19 in agriculture industries, and horticulture in particular, it’s going to be in making changes that improve the long term productivity of our workforce and the predictability of labour supply.  

Announced by then Agriculture Minister Senator Bridget McKenzie way back in December 2019, the independent National Agricultural Labour Advisory Committee was tasked with developing a National Agricultural Workforce Strategy.

While COVID-19 made almost everyone else’s work harder in the past year, it arguably only made the job of the Committee easier.

While finding the right people at the right time and place to keep businesses running has always been a challenge in horticulture, COVID-19 has exacerbated these issues and put them into even sharper relief. So too, in our view, has it highlighted the likely solutions.

Just last week the Committee’s final report to the Commonwealth, including some 37 recommendations, was released by Minister Littleproud and received a warm reception.

Grabbing most headlines was the recommendation an amnesty be offered for those from overseas without the right to work. But there were many other recommendations more important to growers.

These included recommendations for greater investment in upskilling and reskilling so we can take advantage of innovation, for improving perceptions of agricultural work and careers, for nationally consistent labour hire licencing, for more flexibility in existing overseas labour programs, and help for employers to better plan their labour and engage workers fairly.

On this last point, industry is a step ahead of the Committee with the Fair Farms initiative which allows growers to differentiate themselves as employers of choice. In fact, Fair Farms directly addresses 11 of the 37 recommendations.

Easily the most significant recommendation industry called for, which Committee decided not to make, was the creation of a visa category designed to improve the security and predictability of our seasonal worker supply.  

While the Committee might have missed this trick, the Federal Government have signalled a clear interest in working collaboratively with industry to implement recommendations.  

Growcom will still be impressing the importance of an agriculture visa, and the need to seize this opportunity to drive productivity gains long term, not just address our short term labour shortage.