THE seriousness of the labour shortage in the horticulture sector has never been more stark than it is at the moment, just ask fourth generation Yelta citrus grower Michael Hammet, who is watching this season’s crop of navel oranges fall off his trees onto the ground where they’ll be left to rot.

Last week Mr Hammet put out a desperate call for pickers to help him on his property and by week’s end he was starting to have some luck with a number of people arriving to pick the oranges.

The issue of labour shortages in the agriculture sector in Australia has been in the news for a long time.

Exacerbated by COVID, the usual 35,000 plus cohort of overseas backpacker seasonal workers weren’t able to come to our shores to help with the crop harvests.

To ease this situation, the previous Federal Government had introduced the ‘Ag Visa’ which was starting to bear fruit, with a number of workers from Vietnam set to come to Australia to help with the harvest.

With a change of Government in May, came news that the newly elected Labor Government would do away with the Ag Visa established by the Coalition and introduce a new system, which is yet to be revealed, let alone implemented.

Mr Hammet said the problem is impacting all sectors of the agricultural industry.

“It’s not just citrus. I have mates in dairy and other sectors who just can’t find workers,” he said.

“They need help from an Ag Visa basically. Cancelling the Ag Visa program is totally at odds with what this country needs.

“They are talking about introducing another one and they need to fast-track it. They said they were going to do something – well we need it now.

“After two years of COVID closing the border we don’t want to be waiting around any longer for workers.

“I’m hoping to salvage maybe 85 per cent of this crop, but it’s falling-off everyday.”

Unlike citrus that can be mechanically harvested for juicing, the navels on Mr Hammet’s property have to be hand-picked for domestic and international fresh fruit consumption.

“Australian citrus has an estimated Farm Gate value of $900 million to the national economy and that is a rising figure,” Mr Hammet added.

“We are not small-fry, we’ve been getting bigger and bigger over the past five years and exports have only got stronger.

“And so without the pickers, all that is in jeopardy.

“It’s worrying. We have spent 12 months growing it and we’ve got to this stage with a bumper season with high-quality fruit and now we are faced with this dilemma that we can’t pick it.”

Member for Mallee and Shadow Assistant Minister for Regional Development, Anne Webster, has expressed her deep concern around the issue and last week posted statement on her Facebook page in regard to Mr Hammet’s situation, which received instant and enormous reaction.

“The post on my Facebook about Michael’s situation has absolutely ‘gone-off’. I have never had 1300 shares in less than a day,” Dr Webster said.

“The comments that people are making include referencing unemployed people who are not working and many are saying: ‘let’s get on our bikes and go and work as a team’.

“There is the spirit there to want to help to do something about it, which is encouraging, given this is not the first time we have gone through this situation with stone fruit being impacted earlier in the year.

“I am deeply concerned that there is yet another crop that risks falling to the ground – it is a tragedy in the making if we don’t get workers here immediately.

“It is now in Labor’s court. What are they going to do? How are they going to resolve this?

“I have written to all the relevant ministers, including the Employment and Immigration Ministers and asked them for urgent action and so we will wait and see if they actually do something.”

The ‘Weekly approached the new Minister for Agriculture, Murray Watt for comment and asked him what immediate action is he going to take to resolve this situation given that navels are being picked now and what solution does he have for the crisis being experienced by the industry and how can these labour shortages be avoided into the future?

“The Albanese Government understands that farmers have been crying out for more workers for years, and we’re working hard with industry on how that can best be achieved,” Minister Watt said.

“The problem of worker shortages festered under the former Morrison Government for years, with little action. David Littleproud spent years promising big things with his ag visa proposal, but it didn’t deliver a single farm worker.

“In the short term, we plan to train more Australians for increasingly skilled farm work, as well as expand the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme to make sure farmers can access Pacific workers, particularly to fill seasonal jobs.

By the end of May there was a work-ready pool of 52,000 workers, ready to come to Australia and join the 24,400 Pacific and Timorese workers already here.

“In addition, we are cutting through the backlog of visa applications from potential overseas workers, and we will be working to stamp out the worker exploitation that has stopped some from working in the industry.”

Minister Watt added that the sector’s workforce challenge cannot be solved by government action alone, and I am open to hearing from all groups, including industry, farm groups, employers and unions, about possible solutions.

“This will undoubtedly be a focus of the Government’s Jobs and Skills Summit in a couple of months’ time,” he said.

– John Dooley