Good growers need help - now | OPINION

Good growers need help - now | OPINION

Opinion
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Labour solutions need to happen now for horticulture to survive.

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OPINION

THE horticulture industry is at a breaking point.

Hardworking, law abiding, and award paying growers are being pressured to a point that their businesses are being severely compromised to service and be profitable.

Some are seriously considering exiting the industry.

Changes to the Horticulture Award, a lack of access to a competent and reliable workforce, supermarkets and market buyers knowingly purchasing product from non-ethical supply chains, and stories of worker exploitation that tarnish the industry's reputation are all pushing growers who do the right thing to a point of no return.

Growers in the Gippsland Region of Victoria who value their workers and treat them fairly and respectfully are being driven out of the industry because they can't compete with businesses that are willing to undercut them on workers' wages.

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I know of one Labour hire contractor in Western Australia that boasts that they underpay migrant workers because they know they will get away with it.

Farmers all over the country who gamble with their livelihoods by planting crops without knowing where their workforce will come from to harvest it are desperate for a consistent and reliable workforce.

All of these issues are symptoms of the same problem - a chronic shortage of labour in the horticulture industry.

While it is difficult to measure the size of the problem, some educated estimates are that we need tens of thousands of workers to make up this shortfall.

The Government's announcement last month that it is in discussions about expanding the working holiday visa to people from an extended list of countries including India, Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines is a welcome acknowledgement that there is a problem and that it is willing to listen and help.

However, if they also expect that this will significantly improve the chronic shortage of skilled and unskilled labour that the industry faces, they simply don't understand the magnitude of the problem.

Ausveg chair, Bill Bulmer.

Ausveg chair, Bill Bulmer.

Australian growers will always prefer to hire local workers but the reality is that not enough locals want to work on farms and forcing them to do so has failed to address the situation.

The consequence of the labour shortage is that growers are held captive by unscrupulous operators who profit from the mistreatment of workers.

This cannot continue. This is why we need a national labour hire accreditation scheme rolled out nationally.

We need a holistic, multi-faceted approach to ensure that workers and growers are not held to ransom by those who are willing to break the law to make a buck.

The horticulture industry has acknowledged that worker treatment is a problem and is committed to fix it.

The industry's support of the Fair Farms workplace training and certification program is a step in the right direction but needs more buy-in from the broader industry, and greater support from Federal Government and other key horticulture supply chain stakeholders to realise its potential.

The retail industry must acknowledge its role by only sourcing from businesses that can demonstrate they are paying workers a legal wage and treating them fairly.

Growers are frustrated that governments believe the horticulture industry can fill the workforce gap by recruiting people with a long-term unemployment history.

The major retailers have programs to do this but this needs to be a requirement across all retail and wholesale avenues, and it needs to happen quickly.

The industry is only as strong as its weakest link, and if one buyer doesn't source the product ethically, it undercuts and undermines the entire industry.

The government must also acknowledge that the current visas and programs available to attract farm workers are not meeting the industry's needs and must be reconsidered.

The government must act to enforce workplace legislation on farms; if people speed, they can expect a speeding ticket - surely those who knowingly underpay workers should also expect to get caught and face severe penalties.

Good growers have had a gutful of being painted with the same brush as those in the industry exploiting and mistreating workers.

Good growers will be driven out of the industry unless we see change before it's too late.

Growers are frustrated that governments believe the horticulture industry can fill the workforce gap by recruiting people with a long-term unemployment history.

So far, this agenda has failed.

The horticulture industry wants to entice a vibrant and willing workforce that wants to be a part of the industry.

Growers are being forced to pay more for labour, water and power without being paid more for their produce to compensate.

The impact on the industry and supply chain by unethically sourcing produce from growers who they know are unlawfully cutting corners drives prices down which in turn makes fair and ethical farming unsustainable.

Good growers will be driven out of the industry unless we see change before it's too late.

  • Bill Bulmer is the chairman of Ausveg.

The story Good growers need help - now | OPINION first appeared on Good Fruit & Vegetables.

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