Labour shortages: Low hanging fruit ripe for the picking?
By Joanna Cave, CEO GIA
My last update sparked interest and commentary about ongoing labour shortages within the Australian horticulture industry. I received feedback suggesting two sources from which we could plug our labour gaps: recruiting overseas workers on a more permanent basis and allowing people unvaccinated against COVID-19 to return to their previous jobs.
Leo Koelewyn of Coolwyn Nurseries made the point that current Australian migration policy favours skilled workers, and fails to recognise the particular qualities required of workers in horticulture:
“We are missing a great opportunity when overseas temporary workers show that they have an excellent work ethic, rapidly understanding processes, communicate very well and yet have enormous difficulties in applying for and obtaining permanent residency status. We miss out because skilled or semi-skilled applicants are looked at favourably in immigration policy and people who have excellent qualities as described above are treated as not suitable. I find this infuriating as it implies that unskilled workers deserve less and are not essential in our workplace. Immigration policy needs to reflect what is needed in horticulture as determined by industry.”
How skills should be defined, and by whom, is a pertinent point and one I will be keen to raise with policy makers once we know who has carriage of this portfolio following the election. Meanwhile, Chris England of Merrywood Plants highlights what he sees as a contradiction within COVID-19 safe practices:
“We lost two great workers last November, as for their own reasons they decided not to get vaccinated. Now our State Government has basically let the unvaccinated back into society. They can go to restaurants, shops, pubs etc, without showing their vaccination status.
“I know the transport sector are desperately trying to get the unvaccinated driving again. So why, in our industry that mainly works outside, and stayed open the last two years working hard to grow plants, encouraging people to garden and help with their well-being, cannot employ the unvaccinated and help with the crazy shortage of employees?”
As Chris acknowledges, COVID-19 safe working policies reside with state and territory governments and do vary. Allowing for this, I would be interested to know what you think: now that most parts of Australian society accept free movement within it of people who chose not to receive COVID-19 vaccines, should the same rule apply to employment practices?
Meanwhile, changes are in the air at Hort Innovation Australia (HIA), the government agency responsible for the management of levy funds raised by Australia growers and partly matched by Federal Government. In 2021, HIA announced its intention to ‘reset and refresh’ its approach to what is known as the advice mechanism; in other words, the process by which industry influences the research and development projects that are paid for by the levy. GIA is one of the four peak industry bodies recently appointed to a HIA working group, the purpose of which is to help inform this process of change. HIA is offering each levy paying sector the opportunity to re-design the advice mechanism to suit its individual needs. Some sectors may choose to maintain their existing advice mechanism whilst others might opt to make changes. In any case, it is a great opportunity to consider the possibilities and I will be sure to keep you informed of progress. For more details, visit www.horticulture.com.au.
Finally, as this is the inaugural International Day of Plant Health, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the hard work that each of you undertake to ensure your business remains pest and disease free. I would also like to acknowledge the efforts of our Plant Protection Officers (PPOs), ably led by John McDonald, National Biosecurity Manager, who work tirelessly to provide extension services to our industry across Australia, through the levy-funded ‘National Biosecurity and Sustainable Plant Production Program’ (NY20001). I do encourage those of you who would like to do more in this space to read the article ‘7 tips to help your nursery produce high health crops’ in this issue of our news.
As always, do please continue get in touch with me and let me know what you think and feel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your opinions are the ones that count.