The National Farmers’ Federation’s (NFF) Horticulture Council is calling on the Federal Government to ensure its much-heralded solution to the growing workforce crisis works for the whole of the sector.
Following COVID-19 disruptions, there was a swift shift towards a greater reliance on the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme, but with that came headaches for smaller employers who previously relied mostly on backpackers.
NFF Horticulture Council Chair Fiona Simson said as the PALM scheme rapidly expands to 35,000 workers by next June, the risk of smaller employers being left behind was real and growing.
“The PALM scheme’s regulatory burden is a challenge many small employers may not be able to meet,” Ms Simson said.
“Despite backpackers returning to the country, changes to the Working Holiday Maker visa mean far fewer will be looking for work on-farm, putting more pressure on our shrinking agricultural workforce. An expanded PALM program was Labor’s solution to the problem.”
However, Ms Simson said, the cost, plus the administrative and regulatory burden of the program mean that it was less accessible to small family growers who do not have large turnovers or dedicated legal and HR teams.
“The election commitment to cover upfront travel costs of PALM workers was the promise which the new Government made to address this problem. Unfortunately, it has been replaced by an underwriting initiative that, while welcomed by big producers and labour hire providers who already use the scheme, will do little to lower barriers for smaller employers engaging with the PALM scheme.
“And a suite of reforms to the PALM scheme currently under consideration promises no further support for employers who have little to no experience with the PALM. Small growers and those new to the program are forced to rely on labour hire providers. And while industry supports fair use of labour hire arrangements, a government program which forces us to use it is bad by design.
“It has been hard for industry to watch Labor walk away from its election commitment as it was the only promise the Government made to compensate for axing the Australian agriculture visa.
However, the Government has committed to find other solutions for small growers, such as a dedicated advisory service which will be directly available to growers to help them understand and negotiate the system. We intend to hold them to that promise.
“We’ve been saying this plainly to successive governments now: we need labour solutions. We have provided a range of initiatives to the Government to support smaller employers through this period of transition.
“We need the Government to get serious about finding real solutions to the worker shortage in horticulture.”
Ms Simson said the NFF also held serious concerns for the PALM Scheme itself, as it strains under the pressure of rapid expansion and as responsibility for its delivery shifts between government agencies.
Changes to program delivery, however meritorious, only make it harder for small growers to keep up.
“Investment in the PALM Scheme needs to keep in step with the program as it scales and evolves and not become another thing on the growing list of problems.”
The Agricultural Workforce Working Group, of which NFF is a member, meets on today. “We look forward to making meaningful progress on this labour crisis, including how we can get the PALM scheme right,” Ms Simson said.