Fruit and vegetable prices are going to soar unless Australia can find 26,000 workers to address our critical labour shortages.
And at the moment, that outcome is looking likely.
The clock is ticking for the Morrison government to take urgent action on worker shortfalls in our agriculture industry, which is costing farmers more than $40 million in wasted, rotting produce.
This week, Labor’s Ed Husic dialled up the pressure by writing to Agriculture Minister David Littleproud demanding action on the national shortage.
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“The states and territories have taken steps to provide farmers with workers,” Mr Husic wrote in the letter seen by AAP.
“But they shouldn’t be forced to manage problems of this magnitude on their own – and then be disparaged by federal counterparts for not doing enough or doing too little, too late.”
(On Thursday, Labor’s trade spokesperson Madeleine King picked up the agriculture portfolio from Mr Husic, who moved into industry and innovation as part of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese’s long-awaited shadow cabinet reshuffle.)
The letter follows months of debate about how to address the gaping hole in Australia’s farm work labour shortage, created when backpackers and foreign workers were shut out of the country under coronavirus travel restrictions.
The Morrison government has tried to fill this gap by extending visas of foreign workers who are already here, and by providing incentives for young Australians to pull on the gloves and pick fruit.
But finding workers is no easy feat.
Chronic issues like exploitation and working conditions described as “modern slavery” have plagued the industry for years.
The industry is in such a bad way that enthusiastic Australians are actually struggling to get fruit-picking jobs, telling The New Daily that farmers turn them down because they’re not “as exploitable” as foreigners.
Australian farmers have lost at least $42 million because of labour shortages, according to the latest figures from horticulture industry body Growcom.
And there are fears those losses will trickle down to supermarket shoppers at the checkout, as more and more unpicked crops are left to rot.
But the crisis hasn’t shaken Mr Littleproud, who slapped down Mr Husic’s request to reconvene the agriculture ministers forum known as AGMIN, and use the meeting as a critical moment to develop solutions.
Instead, he said the state premiers had expressed a desire to retain control of quarantine for seasonal workers at a national cabinet meeting late last year.
The national cabinet of state premiers and territory chief ministers, chaired by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, has discussed the issue on multiple occasions.
“Over the last 12 months, the federal government has not just provided incentives for Australians to take these jobs, but has extended visas of those already here and found an additional 25,000 Pacific workers if they worked in agriculture,” Mr Littleproud told AAP on Thursday.
“We will continue to support the states to bring these workers in once they provide their quarantine protocols.”
The minister last week criticised Victoria’s move to allow 1500 workers into the state after quarantining in Tasmania as “too little and too late”.