Workers for every season
Boyces embrace Seasonal Worker Programme
At the start of the last apple season, Anne and Craig Boyce employed half their staff through the Seasonal Worker Programme.
By the end of harvest, that figure rose to about 85 per cent as backpackers left to continue their travels.
Given how tough it can be to get enough reliable farm workers during peak times, it is little wonder the Boyces are big fans of the initiative.
Craig and Anne run the Stanthorpe Apple Shed at Thulimbah, on the approach to Stanthorpe.
They work for Ausfarm Fresh, where Craig is the General Manager and Anne provides training and pastoral care for staff recruited through the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP).
This summer, the Boyces expect to employ 56 full time equivalent farm workers, up from 46 last summer. And, if next season is anything like the last, a lot of those workers will end up being employed through the SWP.
The Stanthorpe Apple S hed services about 160 ha of orchards across two local sites. The orchards produce about 20,000 bins of fruit each year, primarily for Woolworths, and the 5000 square metre shed has the capacity to store about 13,000 bins of apples long-term.
The SWP is at the core of how the business operates, and Ausfarm Fresh is an approved employer under the scheme.
Like all employers who use the program, the Boyces are required to try to source Australian labour to meet demand before they employ seasonal workers from abroad.
Their three month recruitment process includes labour market testing for Australian residents first, but they have found the domestic workforce to be lacking.
“We offer work to Australian residents first but sometimes they’re just motivated because of their jobseeker requirements to get the dole. But there are also other reasons beyond that as well, to be fair,” said Craig.
“It’s a hard job, and the population of people in Australia who have been comfortable doing this type of work are ageing. The young people generally don’t want to do it.”
He said a positive attitude and commitment were key qualities he and Anne searched for in their staff.
“The criteria for any staff includes a willingness to work, a desire to deliver good outcomes for the business and an ability to be flexible and maintain a good attitude to what can often be a quite demanding work environment with weather, harvest pressures and other challenges,” said Craig.
“If you spend a considerable amount of time developing skills in casual staff to only lose them to travel or other jobs then you will are always going to get a mediocre outcome, whereas if you can secure a returning skill base then you have to be better placed. This is an advantage of the SWP, as workers are contracted to you for their period in Australia and are keen to return the next season.”
After doing labour market testing in Australia, the Boyces travel abroad to personally screen prospective staff and, once they have selected those who they deem suitable for the job, they induct them on site in Australia.
So far the Boyces have sourced their workers from Vanuatu and Samoa. In November 2016, they were the first Australian farm business managers to travel to Samoa to pre-screen and interview their workers and, in the process, they even met the Samoan Prime Minister.
So, if there isn’t enough local interest in seasonal work, what motivates people to travel thousands of kilometres across the Coral Sea from their island homes to work in Stanthorpe?
In short, it’s the opportunity to get ahead by earning money they couldn’t possibly earn back home.
Farm workers employed through the SWP earn the same casual rates as Australian farm workers. On top of that, Craig says, they are prepared to work diligently to ensure their weekly wages deliver strong bank accounts back home.
Account officer Helen Frank, 27, has come from the volcanic island of Ambrym in Vanuatu to spend six months doing farm work for the Boyces.
It is tough being away from her husband, their four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son for that long, but it’s a sacrifice she’s willing to make so they can buy their own piece of land back home.
For fellow worker Nary Kalotapu, 28, also of Vanuatu, the opportunity to work in Australia is invaluable.
“I have a land repayment debt, so I came here to pay it off. It would take me 15 years back home but here, if you’re a good saver, you can earn that in one year,” she said.
“It’s hard to even get here in the first place because so many people want the opportunity – you have to be fit and smart to have a chance when you go to an interview with an agent.
“I have a 3-year-old son and I’ve got to plan ahead for building our house and paying his school fees. I miss him so much but this is good for him and I thank Anne and Craig and my agent back home.”
For every benefit people like Helen and Nary receive through coming to Australia to work, the communities they reside in benefit too.
Each worker the Boyces bring to the region under the SWP lives at Murray Gardens Motel and Cottages in Stanthorpe, bringing cash flow to that business, and they get involved with the community.
“You go in there and the girls have got their flag on the wall and they’ve got their flowers and their sarongs over the couches and chairs so it’s like home. They bring a taste of their country to Stanthorpe,” said Anne.
“Locals love them, because our workers are quiet, they want to be part of the community, many of them are heavily into church, so they bring energy to that environment, and they just bring a lot of positives you can’t put a dollar figure to.”
At the end of the day, the biggest win for the Boyces is the boost to efficiency of running their business.
“We measure everything and we know where our workers fit. We’re into precision horticulture, we’re into technology and we know where these people fit commercially in our business as well,” Craig said.
“This is not a free kick for an overseas aid program – it works.”
Craig said, as employers, he and Anne get out what they put into their workforce.
“We have regular meetings all the time, we socialise with them and we’ve even taken them to the Gold Coast,” he said.
“If you want to get some value out of it you have to put some value in. It’s like that with any employee – you give them training and feedback.”
Anne and Craig featured in the December/Janurary 2017 edition of Fruit and Vegetable News.
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By Susie Cunningham