VFF survey highlights industry’s labour struggles

| November 8, 2019

AUSVEG, Australia’s peak industry body for vegetables and potatoes, has called on the federal government to continue to work with industry to find a solution to its complex labour issue following the release of the Victorian Farmers Federation’s (VFF) Horticulture Labour Case Study that confirms the industry’s labour challenges.

The VFF case study indicated that 71 per cent of growers in the Sunraysia region believed they were likely to have undocumented workers on their property and that undocumented workers accounted for about 28 per cent of the total workforce in the region.

AUSVEG CEO James Whiteside said the findings were indicative of the tough situation that the horticulture industry finds itself in as it searches for a competent, reliable and skilled workforce, and that the government needed to work with industry to help deal with the difficult situation.

“As an industry we have identified that the high proportion of undocumented workers is an issue and are working with government, growers, unions, retailers and others in the supply chain to find a workable solution that protects workers, stamps out any mistreatment by rogue operators and levels the playing field for growers,” Mr Whiteside said.

“We need foreign workers to harvest and package our fruit and vegetables as local workers are unwilling to work on farms. Migrant workers are a vital source of labour for our industry and we must make sure that these workers are protected from criminal activity on dodgy farms and dodgy labour hire operators.

“Horticulture is a developed industry and needs a legal, reliable, competent and efficient workforce, just like any other industry in Australia. It requires skilled people, whether they are local or from overseas, to help drive this $13 billion industry forward.” 

Earlier this year, AUSVEG backed the industry-led initiative Fair Farms to help raise the compliance levels of the horticulture industry with a financial commitment to help roll out the program nationally. The initiative aims to educate growers on their employer obligations and is supported by the Australian Government.

Since being launched nationally in June, Aldi and Woolworths have supported the initiative, which now has more than 100 growers underway in getting Fair Farms certified. AUSVEG is hopeful more retailers and wholesale markets will jump on board and support.

“Good growers in our industry who are law-abiding people and are treating their workers fairly are being driven out of business by dodgy operators who are mistreating workers and keeping prices artificially low,” Mr Whiteside said.

“It becomes difficult for good growers to compete with dodgy operators when 60 per cent of a grower’s total cost of production is in its workforce. So, when a dodgy operator is paying lower than award wages, it makes it impossible for a grower doing the right thing to compete. We need government intervention to help the growers who are doing the right thing.”

Rogue labour hire companies that undercut honest businesses and exploit workers are the reason why AUSVEG has long called for a National Labour Hire Licencing Scheme. The VFF survey indicated that 95 per cent of growers in Sunraysia used a labour hire contractor, which highlights the significant role the labour hire industry plays in horticulture. AUSVEG said industry needs a mechanism to help remove dodgy contractors operating in the sector and support growers in identifying dodgy labour hire companies taking advantage of growers and workers.

“The horticulture industry has also been working hard to raise compliance levels within the sector by working with growers, retailers, unions, government departments and the Fair Work Ombdudsman, so that those who are doing the wrong thing are identified and held to account for their actions,” Mr Whiteside said.

“We need everyone to be on the same page to flush out illegal, exploitative behaviours in the horticulture industry so that growers, workers and the public can have confidence in the fair treatment of the workers who harvest, pick and package their fruits and vegetables.”

AUSVEG has advocated strongly for horticulture growers to be able to access a competent, reliable and skilled workforce over a longer period of time.

“Backpackers are a good source of labour for many growers, but most are in Australia for a holiday rather than work. Backpackers are an important piece of the horticulture labour puzzle, but the industry needs more,” Mr Whiteside said. 

“Growers would love to employ a local workforce, but there are some real struggles in accessing them, from a lack of vocational and higher education opportunities in this space, right down to a lack of local workers wanting to work in horticulture.

“It is vital that the government works with industry to review the visa system to ensure that workers are protected and that horticulture growers have access to the sufficient skilled and on-farm workforce that it needs to harvest fruit and vegetables for local and international consumers.

“AUSVEG welcomes the VFF’s labour survey and the work that has gone into it. The case study results reinforce what industry have been telling both sides of government for some time.

“We hope now we can get some real action and movement from the government in this space, as there are huge gains to be made in this exciting sector if we get this right.”

SHARE WITH: