Thank you Mr Speaker.
I rise today to discuss a critical issue facing the horticultural sector in my Electorate of Mallee. Since being elected, growers have informed me of the difficulties they face in securing a reliable and sufficient seasonal workforce.
Mallee is home to approximately 74% of Australia’s almond production, 70% table grapes, 57% of nectarines, and 19% of oranges, with most grown in the north of the electorate.
This area along the Murray River, encompassing Mildura, Robinvale and Swan Hill, amounts to 10 percent of all Horticultural farms in Australia, and accounted to $1.36 billion, or 15 percent, of Australia’s horticultural production for 2016.
Growers from these areas have been dealing with workforce shortages for years, creating anxiety and uncertainty for each harvest. If workers cannot be found, this season’s harvest is at risk of falling to the ground, resulting in a $1.4 billion loss for the industry.
The problems associated with labour shortages have been amplified recently due to a number of factors, including the Victorian Government’s Labour Hire Licensing Scheme, and the Federal Government’s Modern Slavery Act. These legislative instruments provide important regulatory frameworks to protect growers and workers in the industry. However, when compounded with intense seasonal demand, growers face significant workforce challenges.
I have been listening to local voices and working hard with my colleagues in Government to develop adaptive solutions to the workforce shortage issues in this industry. In September 2019, I organised several meetings between 6 federal government departments, State and local government officials, and many industry stakeholders, including the Australian Table Grapes Association and Citrus Australia.
In response to the work we have done in this space, the Regional Agriculture Migration Package, otherwise known as RAMP, has been developed at the request of the Government to improve seasonal labour supply to horticulture farmers; advocate for appropriate accommodation for workers to State and local governments; and eliminate illegal employment practices in the great food-producing areas along the Murray.
The RAMP is a coordinated response by our Government to a complex issue of national importance, bringing together the resources of the Departments of Employment, Agriculture, Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Home Affairs, as well as the Australian Border Force and the Fair Work Ombudsman.
The RAMP makes a number of improvements to the Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme, which are longstanding cooperative agreements between Australia, 9 pacific island nations and Timor-Leste. The Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme offer employers in the agriculture sector access to a reliable workforce where there is not enough local Australian labour to meet seasonal demand. It is also an opportunity for workers from partnering countries to earn good wages and learn new skills. The money they earn is often spent on their children’s education, family medical bills, or even used to build a house, or start a small business.
These seasonal workforce programs offer reciprocal benefits and form a key aspect of our commitment to building stronger connections with our near neighbours in the Pacific.
Under the RAMP, the Seasonal Worker Programme Regional Pilot has been expanded to the whole of the Wimmera-Mallee region. This pilot enables greater flexibility under the programme as workers can move between regions to take advantage of seasonal harvests.
It is now possible for Approved Employers to enter shared arrangements that will increase the portability of workers through the programme. This means that farmers and growers that require workers for short periods of time can plan their harvest needs and share the same workers consecutively.
I have heard that many smaller growers are deterred from becoming Approved Employers because their harvest period is not long enough, meaning they cannot provide enough work to fill the requirements of the program. Although these people can still source seasonal workers through approved labour hire contractors, the services of these companies come with associated costs. This change therefore gives growers more choice and flexibility when making arrangements for their workforce. The ability for growers to enter into these shared arrangements will encourage more producers to participate, and allow proactive growers and employers to work collaboratively to meet the needs of their businesses.
Mr Deputy Speaker, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is working with our partner countries to develop pools of work ready applicants to take up opportunities through our Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme.
At the start of this year, I had the pleasure to host the First Secretary of the Timor-Leste embassy, Mr Samuel Soares. I invited Mr Soares to Mildura to participate in discussions on the Seasonal Worker Program, and the recent changes made to it. He informed me that his embassy has prepared a pool of over 6000 applicants willing to come to Australia under these programs.
Mr Soares assured me that his Government is working to streamline its internal processes relating to these programs, to welcome more Timorese workers to Australia. Their hard work is demonstrated by the fact that the number of Timorese workers in the Seasonal Worker Programme has increased from 754 in 2017, to 1,712 in 2019.
The Timor-Leste government knows that Australia’s seasonal workforce programs are beneficial for their workers; however, Mr Soares noted that Timorese workers do incur significant costs as part of their employment.
Before accepting their offer of employment, seasonal workers must complete expensive medical checks in Timor-Leste. They are then presented with a schedule of payments that will be deducted from their pay to cover certain costs, including flights, and accommodation. Mr Soares estimates that Timorese workers spend close to $1,000,000 Australian dollars in associated costs and deductions, during their involvement with our seasonal workforce programs.
Mr Soares informed me that these costs reduce the value proposition of our programs, and are too onerous for some to bear. Investigation needs to occur so these costs can be subsidised, in order to increase the value of these programs to potential workers.
During Mr Soares’ trip to Mildura, we visited a local table grape farm, GrapeCo, in Merbein South that is owned and operated by Frank and Adrian Caia (Kya). GrapeCo has been through the process to become an Approved Employer and have been approved to employ up to 25 Timorese workers. Their status as an Approved Employer has given them scope and flexibility to expand their workforce as their business expands.
I met Ramiro Soares, Gilberto Gomes, and Martina Freitas on farm, who have recently arrived at GrapeCo from Timor-Leste, and have been enjoying the experience so far. It was extremely valuable for me to hear their stories, and to learn that our seasonal workforce programs are delivering for both local growers, and workers from our partnering nations.
Based on the feedback I have received from numerous sources, it is clear that the Federal Government’s seasonal workforce programs are operating effectively, and are working to address shortages in the region. With that being said, a number of barriers remain, which prevent a complete solution to the workforce shortages in our region. And as such, this issue will be a key priority for me in 2020.
The second puzzle piece in resolving workforce shortages is the Horticulture Industry Labour Agreement. The government has introduced this new initiative which increases access to skilled and semi-skilled migrant workers for growers in the horticulture industry. Through this agreement employers are able to sponsor workers for the Temporary Skilled Shortage VISA for 31 approved occupations. And workers will have access to permanent residency pathways under the Skilled Employer Sponsored Regional VISA program, and the Employer Nomination Scheme VISA program.
This is a promising initiative which recognises the maturity evolving in the industry, which requires both a skilled and unskilled workforce to continue to grow. I look forward to working with local producers and relevant stakeholders to ensure success with this Horticulture Industry Labour Agreement, as well as our complementary seasonal workforce programs.
My expectation is that our horticulture industry will go from strength to strength in 2020 and beyond, contributing to the goal of a $100 billion dollar agriculture industry by 2030.