The federal government’s Jobs and Skills Summit has been dubbed an over-priced “talkfest” by farmers who worry their fruit won’t be harvested due to a lack of pickers and packers.
- Industry groups say 172,000 workers are needed across Australia’s food supply chain
- Unions want more training opportunities for Australian workers
- Farmers say the Jobs and Skills Summit must deliver solutions
Northern Territory mango grower Andrew Dalglish likened this week’s Canberra summit to a “desktop study”.
“You need to get out on the ground and talk to people that are dealing with this every day of their life,” Mr Dalglish said.
“That’s just another talkfest, a waste of money.
“We in the horticulture game, I think we’re talking 40,000 plus people short, in hospitality they’re talking 120,000 people.
“I’m not sure if they understand it in Canberra but Australia is a very, very large land mass and we need numbers on the ground and there’s nobody here.”
Mango harvest is underway in the Northern Territory where growers expect 3,000 farm workers will be required to pick and pack a bumper crop this year.
Grower Leo Skliros said he could employ 90 harvest workers at his farm near Darwin, but just weeks into the harvest he is already struggling to find enough people.
“I just don’t think there’s enough workers in the country,” Mr Skliros said.
“I was told I’d have 50 today, but I’m 18 short. I’ll probably need to be at 90 next week and I’m going to be struggling to get to 50,” he said.
NT Farmers chief executive Paul Burke said pandemic-related border closures and low unemployment across the economy had created the tightest labour market he could recall.
“We’re not going to get the crop off at this rate,” Mr Burke said.
“We don’t have enough truck drivers, we don’t have enough packers, we don’t have enough pickers, it’s throughout the supply chain and I think it needs urgent and immediate action.”
Mr Burke called on the summit to consider ideas such as introducing tax incentives for farmers who provide on-farm accommodation, training for Pacific workers in their home country and inviting more countries to provide farm workers.
“I think the conditions are quite attractive, and I know plenty of growers that are paying above the award and still not getting workers,” he said.
“I think it’s a structural reform we need and we can’t rely on Australian workers anymore.”
Pacific workers part of the solution
The government has abandoned the former Coalition government’s plan to establish a new visa for foreign workers, instead suggesting there’s 40,000 workers in the Pacific available to work in Australia.
The Australian Workers’ Union wants the Jobs and Skills Summit to consider introducing new rules that would see employers train an Australian worker for every foreign worker employed.
“Simply relying upon workers from around the world to operate our industries, our workplaces, our companies is not a good model for the future,” national secretary Dan Walton said.
“We need to act a bit smarter.
“Let’s have a look at bringing over skilled migrants on a more permanent basis, but have a responsibility there for when you do that, that you’re going to train someone to be able to fill that role, or if you can’t do that, to contribute into a training fund to give the government the capacity to develop the skills that we need into the future.”
The Food Supply Chain Alliance estimates 172,000 workers are needed to fill positions across the supply chain from paddock to plate.
One of its members, the National Farmers’ Federation, will put 40 recommendations to the summit, including calls to streamline the visa process and fast track a national labour-hire licensing scheme.
“The government must identify measurable targets to hold this event to account and make sure it’s not just a talkfest,” president Fiona Simson said.
Treasurer Jim Chalmers defended the summit, saying it had already brought together industry groups and policy makers to discuss the challenges facing the economy.
“Nobody going to the job summit will get absolutely everything that they want, but it’s worth the effort and I think the engagement we’ve had so far is proof of that,” Mr Chalmers said.
“We welcome the contribution of all sides in the lead up to the summit, at the summit and afterwards as well.”
Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on ABC iview