By Growcom CEO Stephen Barnard
No matter what happens at the polls on Saturday 21 May, the pain arising from a lack of seasonal labour in the Australian horticulture sector is going to persist for some time to come.
While a few backpackers have started finding their way into growing regions looking for work, we could conceivably be years returning to pre-pandemic numbers.
Latest figures to the end 2021 show an all-time low of just 15,000 backpackers holding a Working Holiday Maker visa in Australia, down from around 40,000 at the end of 2020.
Just before COVID-19 arrived we had about 120,000 Working Holiday Makers in the country, when it was estimated about 80 percent of the Australian horticulture seasonal workforce were backpackers.
Even when backpackers return in numbers, we can no longer expect to see as many looking for work on farms.
Backpackers from the UK soon won’t need to work at all to stay in Australia for up to three years, and in some parts of the country backpackers can now choose to earn their visa extensions by working in industries other than agriculture.
In terms of putting a plan in place to secure the future agricultural workforce, Growcom has welcomed commitments this election campaign from both major parties to expand programs enabling workers from the Pacific to take up seasonal harvest work.
If there is a lesson though in coming out of COVID-19, it’s not putting too many eggs in one basket. This is as true for export markets as it is sourcing our labour supply.
Growcom remains a firm supporter of the current Australian Agriculture visa, as designed over the past few years in close consultation with industry.
So we support the commitment from the LNP to the current Ag visa and encourage the ALP to allow some room, should they win government, to reconsider a visa program for our near neighbours in South East Asia.
ALP plans to create an agriculture stream within the existing Pacific programs, including the movement of family units and a pathway to permanent residency, while worthy would surely struggle to meet industry needs for a flexible workforce able to move between employers and regions, and cover the huge arrears of Working Holiday Makers.