POST 112: HOW LONG DO AUSTRALIAN’S HAVE TO WAIT FOR AN HONEST DEBATE ABOUT THE AGRICULTURE WORKFORCE?

Introduction

In 2018–19, there were 89,400 agricultural businesses in Australia.

And despite Australian politicians, farming industries and the media constantly pushing the panic button about a shortage of farm workers due to the international border closure. 

The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment ABARES, latest report reveals the sector demonstrated an ability to adapt to new opportunities during the pandemic.

In 2020 an Ernst and Young report suggested Australia had an estimated shortage of 26,000 farm workers. However, that latest ABARES data on the agriculture workforce, indicates these projections were inaccurate.

The Australian horticultural industry is getting away with wage exploitation.

Population Research WA are sceptical about the constant finger pointing at Australian workers, suggesting they are unwilling to work in horticultural industries.

For example, the left wing Australian Guardian is a prime example, they write, ‘’no one wants to do this sort of work … governments have for years papered over cracks when it comes to finding the labour to work on farms and vineyards’’.

This type of disparaging Australia’s unemployed has been unfortunate.

There are perhaps genuine reasons why the horticulture industry has had some bad publicity in the past year. Notwithstanding the wages loophole which it uses to set dollar amounts per punnet or bags with a piecework rate.

The Guardian article also provided some critical on the ground observation with their reporter working in the horticulture industry for a short spell.

This highlighted a serious flaw in the horticultural wage system where piece rates are paid at $3 per bucket of grapes. The reporter acknowledged this stating, “I would have received $39 before tax for my efforts, and surely wouldn’t have returned the next day”.

In this case, for 5 days the pay would have been $195 before tax. Well short of the minimum wage by a whopping $557. As of 1 July 2021, the national minimum wage is $20.33 per hour or $772.60 per week.

These extremely low wages resemble pay rates in undeveloped countries.

A report into the horticulture industry suggests the  majority of piece rates advertised would not allow a worker to earn the national minimum wage..

Don’t believe the hype about high demand for overseas farm workers – over 55,000 thousand Australians worked for horticultural growers.

And horticultural businesses have thrived during the coronavirus pandemic.

Population Research decided to delve into ABARES agricultural surveys, and data. And it demonstrates that there is another side to the farm worker’s debate which is mostly neglected.

Even though Work Holiday visa holders have dropped from 119,000 in March 2020 to 36,000 in May 2021, see Chart 1 below. Australian growers have undergone significant employment growth.

Contrary to the unsubstantiated commentary that Australians’ are not prepared to fold back their sleeves and find work in agriculture industries, in reality a considerable number of Australians are working in the horticultural sector .

Employment of Australian seasonal workers in horticulture rose to 56,000 workers in February 2019.

And during the coronavirus pandemic Australia’s horticulture vegetable growers have thrived. Since May 2022 -May 2021 Mushroom and vegetables growers have seen significant growth in employment adding another 4,500 workers and an increase of 27.4%.

Moreover, fruit and tree nut growing has also undergone growth, adding another 2,700 workers for the year ending 2021, an increase of 7.2%.

This may help to explain why avocado prices in West Australia have been exceptionally low in recent weeks.

A bumper season across Australia’s key avocado growing regions has producers worried prices could drop to record low levels.

In WA projections are that a further 8.2 million trays will be picked this summer, amounting to a 233 per cent increase in production on last year.

( Source: Australian Government Department of Home Affairs, 2021, Updated 29/07/2021)

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