The Bare Essentials director Brendan Dipple crouches beside Joseph.
The Bare Essentials director Brendan Dipple crouches beside Joseph.

Regional fruit, vegetable growers face worker shortfall

FRESH produce growers across the Lockyer Valley and the Darling Downs say the industry needs a serious rethink to encourage more local workers to join up.

The comments from farmers and industry bodies come after it was revealed there was low take-up of a $6000 government allowance to get people on unemployment benefits working on horticultural farms.

The issue has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with backpackers returning home as international borders shut.

State Government modelling has predicted there will be a shortage of about 7000 full-time equivalent workers across key growing regions towards the end of this year.

Bare Essentials owner Brendan Dipple, who grows vegetables and herbs in the Lockyer Valley, said he had a shortfall of about six workers ahead of the summer harvest.

While he said an increase to incentives would help in the short-term, the wider problem surrounded how the industry was structured.

"Incentives would help me get a job done however won't solve the overarching problem of engagement with people to seriously consider a few years or even a longer term career on farm," he said.

"We advertise for workers, and predominantly, it's backpackers that answer the call.

"It's been my experience that there is little domestic interest in this work.

"I need the support of the wider community and we need people to take this industry seriously as an option, even for a short time, to earn and learn."

Mr Dipple said his first preference was always towards domestic workers, especially those who were willing work as pickers for a lengthy period of time.

"We have used backpackers for many years now as they are most willing to do this type of work, although more recently we are needing to find more permanent harvesters as quality standards within the industry become more challenging.

"It takes quite a while to become a competent picker.

"It frustrates me that our people are constantly referred to as unskilled labourers, and yet the retention rate for a quality harvester would be one in 60."

INCENTIVES NEEDED TO HELP INDUSTRY

Richard Shannon, the policy and advocacy manager for industry body Growcom, said he wanted the Federal Government to consider adopting several recommendations from a recent parliamentary inquiry into the Working Holiday Maker program.

Two suggestions included allowing people on Jobseeker to retain their payments while working as a harvester, as well as discounting HECS and HELP debts for students who engaged in the work.

Mr Shannon said the inquiry found the average entry wage as a pieceworker on most farms was only a few hundred dollars more than the bumped-up Jobseeker rate.

"We had reports that not only were the wages a disincentive to start working, but the Jobseeker was an incentive to leave the farms," he said.

Mr Shannon said this wasn't an opportunity to shame the unemployed, but a chance for the Federal Government to correct issues with the system.

"We're not going to get anywhere talking down to Australians," he said.

"The point I made is we already employ a great number of Australians (but) a significant proportion of our labour is from overseas workers.

"There are simply not enough overseas workers, so we need Queenslanders and Australians to step up."

Speaking more broadly, Mr Shannon said the pandemic had exposed issues with the current visa system and worker structure within the harvesting sector.

"It's been a shock, a massive disruption - we need to learn lessons from it," he said.

"We need to learn a new model that doesn't rely on backpackers.

"The industry has pushed for a specific visa that would give it more confidence, from a willing and able workforce and is co-ordinated for that particular purpose.

"We're not interested in employing people who won't work anywhere."


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