The state’s peak farming body says there are 100,000 fewer backpackers in the country than before COVID, putting real pressure on farmers searching for ag workers for looming harvests.
NSW Farmers Workplace Relations spokesperson Chris Stillard said there was a shortage of labour across agriculture, and it was having a real impact on productivity.
“Traditionally we’ve needed international workers to fill the gaps in seasonal work,” Chris said. “Jobs such as harvest, sowing, shearing by their very nature are seasonal, the jobs are short term and therefore attractive for a workforce that is transient and willing to travel.
“But COVID threw a big spanner in the works, there were around 140,000 backpackers pre-pandemic, now there are only around 40,000 backpackers in the country,”NSW Farmers Workplace Relations spokesperson Chris Stillard.
Chris said the farming sector had put forward a number of potential solutions, such as removing financial barriers for pensioners to participate in work, and expedited visa approval of semi-skilled and skilled workers.
While the problem was not new, he said, it had become more acute and needed decisive action.
“There’s increasing market competition to attract labour – according to the latest ABS job vacancies release, there were 480,100 vacancies in Australia, more than double the pre-pandemic vacancies in February 2020,” Chris said.
“At the height of COVID, we’ve heard of animals being turned away from abattoirs due to a lack of staff, and we saw big disruptions in the major retailer food supply chains. It doesn’t just hit the farmers but it’s also families who are feeling the pinch right now.
“The labour shortage certainly isn’t the only factor in the rising price of food, but it’s not helping.”
Let pensioners be ag workers
The National Farmers Federation (NFF) has backed calls for an opt-in scheme that would allow pensioners to return to the workforce without being penalised.
Independent MPs Rebekha Sharkie and Dai Le put forward a ‘Let Pensioners Work’ private members bill to Federal Parliament last week that also won the support of National Seniors and the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia (COSBOA).
NFF President Fiona Simson said grey nomads would suit a diverse range of ag worker roles, particularly during harvest time.
“Quite often in the peak of the harvest season, that day here and day there is really valuable to the farmers, because it means they can actually get the fruit into the containers and into the shed,” Fiona said.
Under current rules, a pensioner can earn $480 ($180 plus a $300 work bonus) per fortnight before their pension reduces, and a pensioner is only allowed to work for 18 hours per fortnight at minimum wage before their earnings starts to effectively be taxed at 50 per cent.
Chris Stillard said there is a real opportunity for pensioners to help fill the ag worker roles, especially for seasonal work, by allowing pensioners to work without being penalised with reduced pension.
“There are very few jobs that can accommodate such limited engagement per week,” Chris said. “We think the Work Bonus threshold should be increased to at least three times the current rate.
“It is a no brainer policy to remove financial penalties for pensioners to work and encourage higher participation of work in the current environment when the country is crying out for workers.”
National Seniors’ Craig Sullivan said their research showed 20 per cent of pensioners surveyed were considering a return to work.
“They need the money. The pension is not exactly a good way of getting through the cost-of-living crisis, particularly now with higher petrol prices and higher grocery prices,” Craig said.
The shortage of workers in agriculture is a perennial problem. Check out our feature on Ability Agriculture – an organisation creating opportunities for people with a disability to work in agriculture.