SUPPORT: National Farmer's Federation has called for an ag visa to help support farmers.
SUPPORT: National Farmer's Federation has called for an ag visa to help support farmers. Trevor Veale/The Coffs Coast Adv

'Leaving produce to rot': Labour challenges

SOME farmers are being forced to choose between leaving their produce on the vine to rot and breaking the law.

This is according to a three-year, in-depth study of Australian horticulture's labour challenges led by the University of South Australia, Law Professor Dr Joanna Howe, commissioned by VegetablesWA and supported by the National Farmer's Federation.

The study identifies a chronic shortage of legitimate, willing and capable workers within certain growing regions.

The Report's National Survey of Vegetable Growers found that 40 per cent of those surveyed indicated they had not been able to recruit sufficient pickers, packers and graders at some point in the past five years.

More than 60 per cent reported leaving vegetables unpicked.

The report found that to get the job done, many growers depended on unreliable forms of labour.

National Farmer's Federation CEO Tony Mahar said the study confirmed the reality that some growers feel they are forced to rely upon "undocumented” migrants who work and remain in Australia, in breach of their visa conditions.

"Undocumented workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, sometimes by the growers themselves, but more often at the hands of rogue labour hire operators,” he said.

Mr Mahar said NFF has zero tolerance for worker exploitation, but are trying to understand why farmers feel acting illegally is their only choice.

"By far the majority of farmers who don't comply do so inadvertently or because they feel their only other option is to let their crop spoil and therefore forsake a year's income,” he said.

NFF, on March 7, called for an agriculture-specific visa to help prevent exploitation and ease the sector's labour crisis.

"A tailored ag visa would ensure workers have entered Australia via legal and legitimate means, are working in accordance with visa conditions, and that their presence in the Australian workforce is transparent. Importantly, it would protect against exploitation,” Mr Mahar said.

Growers will need to demonstrate a compliance with the law to access the program.

"An ag visa would also have safeguards to ensure workers know their rights, know who to turn to, and are not bullied into thinking that they have to put up with mistreatment,” he said.

"The NFF welcomes sensible measures to protect the wellbeing of migrant workers and to ensure farmers maintain access to an international workforce.”

Mr Maher said the industry needed to work with retailers to encourage more equitable returns for produce and to better educate consumers on the true costs of producing food.

"Ultimately, the objective is to improve farmers' returns and farm workers' wages. Wages are one of the largest expenses in a grower's overall production costs,” he said.

Solving agriculture's worker deficit was paramount to agriculture achieving a farm gate output value of $100 billion by 2030 and a key component of NFF's 2030 Roadmap.