Growing concern over shortage of harvest labour

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GOULBURN Valley orchardists are concerned about a shortage of labour during this summer’s harvest, with international and state border restrictions expected to limit the number of workers available to pick fruit.

While the local fruit harvest is still at least three months away, Fruit Growers Victoria (FGV) grower services manager, Mick Crisera, said the issue was a concern right across Australia.

According to FGV, up to 70 percent of seasonal labour on Goulburn Valley farms can be made up of expat workers in the country on two-year Working Holiday visas or bridging visas.

Mr Crisera said he would be in favour of a reintroduction of the 2018 Seasonal Work Incentives Trial (SWIT), which was an incentive for Australians receiving Newstart or Youth Allowance to earn up to $5000 engaged in short-term, seasonal work without affecting their benefits.

The SWIT program didn’t see a strong take-up in 2018, however with youth unemployment in Shepparton, Moira and Campaspe shire areas at around 30 percent, as reported in The Adviser last week, Mr Crisera said the trial may be more successful this time around.

According to data from industry body Apple and Pear Australia Ltd, nearly 2500 workers are required for the February peak apple and pear harvest alone in the Goulburn Valley.

Harvest officer at employment agency MADEC, Brandon Coughlan, said the issue of potential labour shortages was a big concern which could stretch over the next two years.

While significant numbers of working holiday makers remain in Australia, numbers are dwindling as people return to their home countries, and the usual arrival of workers has all but halted.

In the Northern Territory, a seasonal worker program may see up to 170 workers from Vanuatu under a pilot program aimed at filling labour shortages in the mango industry.

Mr Coughlan said he was unsure whether a similar program could be used in the Goulburn Valley.

“There has to be a longer-term commitment from the farm,” he said.

“But it is a concern. People simply aren’t planning two-year trips to Australia right now.”