Australian farmers say they have already lost $38 million as a result of labour shortages caused by international border closures.
It comes as the industry faces mounting questions over why they can’t do more to attract unemployed Australians.
Labour shortages have become a pressing issue for the industry, which is suffering from the closed international border, the resultant lack of seasonal workers, and chronic exploitation.
Peak industry bodies are now arguing that exploitation on farms will worsen if foreign workers are not brought in immediately, blaming state governments for refusing to fly in seasonal workers.
But the peak body for horticulture workers, the Australian Workers Union, has slammed the push to open the border, saying the industry could easily get local boots on the ground if it promised to pay people fairly.
Jobs paying well below minimum wage are common in the industry, and despite the government claiming job seekers are too lazy to pick produce, unemployed Australians applying for these roles have said farmers won’t employ them.
Advertisements that offer $3000 a week have been debunked by experienced pickers revealing they took the work and earned under minimum wage.
And the labour shortage is costing farmers millions.
In December, the National Farmers Federation and peak industry body GrowCom launched a lost crop register, for growers to anonymously report their lost income, which has now topped $38 million.
One fruit grower and one vegetable grower have each lost more than $10 million, the NFF said.
Growcom policy and advocacy manager Richard Shannon said the industry could suffer from labour shortages for two years.
“Without urgent action, our labour supply situation will only continue to deteriorate,” he said.
“Growers will keep losing crops until international travel reaches the same scale it was before the pandemic, expected to be more than two years away.”
Mr Shannon called on the government to expand the capacity of hotel quarantine to allow Pacific Islanders and East Timorese to safely enter Australia and take up picking jobs.
In August, the federal government said it would bring in 22,000 seasonal workers from countries such as Vanuatu, Tonga, Samoa and Tuvalu.
Queensland, Western Australia, the Northern Territory, New South Wales and Tasmania have flown over about 1000 employees, who work on the farms while they quarantine.
“We know there are many workers keen to get started, but right now there’s a big bottleneck getting through state and territory-based quarantine,” Mr Shannon said.
AWU national secretary Daniel Walton, however, said fully opening the borders was unrealistic.
“Our borders are shut and likely to stay shut,” Mr Walton said.
“All we hear from industry are more ways to open the borders and bring in more foreign workers, risking the health of Australians.
“We have a solution sitting at our doorstep, which is [putting] Australians in jobs.”
Mr Walton said the industry could easily fix the labour issues and save the crops.
“The industry needs to pay the award minimum. We need to fix up piece rates,” he said.
Legally, the industry is allowed to pay below minimum wage if it pays people based on how much they pick (piece rates), rather than paying them a set hourly rate or salary.
Nonetheless, the government has led a concerted campaign to brand job seekers as ‘lazy” for not picking fruit and vegetables.
On Tuesday, Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack urged unemployed Aussies to ‘turn off Netflix’ and head to the regions to find “fun” and “well-paying” jobs.
“I say to those people who perhaps have done reasonably well off JobSeeker, [who] might have been earning more than what they could ever have dreamt of, it’s time perhaps to turn the Stan and Netflix off and come out to the regions [where] you can have a better life,” he told Today.
In December, Australia’s Agriculture Minister David Littleproud lashed out at local unemployed people, claiming they would rather sit on the couch than take up farm labouring jobs.
He blasted state governments for not approving special quarantine arrangements so that overseas workers could plug the labour shortage.
“Every Australian gets first crack at these jobs, but sadly they don’t want to get off the couch and have a crack at it,” Mr Littleproud told Sky News.
“There’s a large cohort that have been on unemployment benefits for some time that don’t want to have a go at these jobs.”
But the reality is far more complex.
Many job seekers have struggled to get work on farms, despite applying for dozens of picking roles.
They say they can’t land jobs because they are “not as exploitable” as foreigners.
Australian Unemployed Workers Union spokesperson Kristin O’Connell said the government has not assured people they will find decent jobs on Australian farms.
“They have failed to consider people can’t up and leave,” she said.
“The major reason it’s hard to get people into farm work is conditions are so appalling and the pay is so low. There’s no incentive to take the work.”
The government has offered to pay back unemployed Australians up to $6000 of their relocation fees if they take up picking work on farms, but Ms O’Connell said there were no assurances the jobs advertised even paid a liveable wage.
In November, The New Daily revealed just 30 Australian farms have completed a government program designed to ensure workers are not exploited.
But since the voluntary scheme, Fair Farms, was launched in June 2019, only 30 farms have been certified via the program, which has cost taxpayers more than $1.5 million.