Fruit and vegetable farmers will need an extra 26,000 workers to harvest their crops this summer, calling for urgent government interventions to help fill agricultural labour shortages caused by Australia shutting its border after the pandemic hit.
The move slashed the number of backpackers on Working Holiday Maker visas – who form a significant part of the farm workforce – from 150,000 to 73,000 last month.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has already announced a range of changes aimed at plugging the gaps.
Jobseekers can earn $300 a fortnight without affecting their welfare payments, while backpackers working on farms can stay with one employer for more than six months and stay in Australia an extra year.
Programs aimed at bringing in Pacific and Timorese workers to fill rural and regional job shortages have reopened.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has signalled he will do more to open the seasonal labour schemes and encourage Australians to take up regional jobs.
Littleproud said he was working closely with farmers on additional measures ahead of next week’s federal budget.
“Farmers don’t have the luxury of sitting around waiting for workers to turn up and we don’t want fruit rotting on the vine or crops left in the field,” he told AAP on Wednesday.
Liberal backbencher John Alexander told a parliamentary inquiry earlier this week that welfare eligibility rules should be tightened to provide more agricultural labour.
“We need some more teeth,” he said.
“While we can’t probably go to conscription, can we apply a little more heat and pressure and do it urgently, because the crops won’t wait.”
Alexander proposed a compulsory questionnaire about farm labour for all JobSeeker recipients, who would have their dole cut off if they refused to complete the form.
“The question should be asked, ‘if not, why not?’ If somebody is saying ‘oh no I don’t want to do that’ because they’re just happy sitting on the couch and taking the dole,” he said.
“What more pressure could be applied to somebody who’s a little bit marginal?
“It needs to be done as if we’re in a war situation. It needs to be mobilised very quickly.”
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