END OF THEIR TETHER: For Payne’s Farm Contracting operators Alan Payne and his wife Louise, the effort to keep their business running and viable, is becoming increasingly harder every year due to over regulation, something which has seen them consider giving it all away.

By JOHN DOOLEY

WITH the advent of the backpacker tax, new labour hire laws and now penalty rates for casuals employed in horticulture, finding and retaining people to work on farms is proving to be a hard task.

Layer upon layer of bureaucracy, leading to added costs, is stifling this industry to the point where people like Colignan pruning contractors, Alan and Louise Payne, say they’re ready to throw the towel in.

“I can’t stress how bad things are for us at the moment. My husband’s stress levels are of deep concern to me, and I have genuine fears for his health,” Louise said. “I’ve been trying to lobby government for more than three years now for some rational concessions around visa conditions and labour shortages, to no avail.”

Established in 2013, Payne’s Farm Contracting Pty Ltd is a highly professional, fully compliant company which provides specialised pruning services for properties growing stone fruit, citrus and almonds. 

The company brings a combined experience of more than 40 years. Alan is a horticulturist and farm manager, and Louise has the OHS, Quality, Business admin and recruitment experience.

At the end of April this year, Victoria’s new Labour Hire Laws came into effect, requiring labour-hire providers to apply for a licence to operate their businesses – a cost of more than $6000 for the Payne’s, who would argue they aren’t really a labour hire contractor, but are forced to sign up to the new scheme regardless.

At about the same time, a new penalty rate regime for casual workers employed in horticulture also came into effect, adding a further layer of cost and complexity to the industry.

“There is this confluence of factors where not only has there been the intransigence around visas, but the sheer refusal of government to engage with our industry to try to come to some working compromise on these issues in the face of what our whole industry is battling against,” Louise said.

“We got the new labour laws in Victoria, and then within five minutes we got the penalty rates, and there is no question that the inspectorate arm of the commissioner’s body for the policing of the new labour hire laws will be the unions.

“On top of that, Fair Work has announced, in no uncertain terms, that they are ‘glaring’ at horticulture specifically this year – so that’s what we are faced with.”

Louise said that these laws are a union-driven solution to a problem that was never addressed properly under the existing laws. 

“The issue was allowed to fester for so long and resulted in such egregious behaviour as to sully Mildura’s reputation both nationally and internationally,” she said.

“Let it be stressed that the largest, most organised and systematic theft of wages from overseas workers is effectively perpetrated by the Australian Government through the arbitrary raising of the backpacker tax, and the theft of 65 percent of the superannuation earned by these workers.  

“These people pay over the odds for everything, are required to hold their own health insurance, spend everything they earn while they’re here – they contribute to rather than cost our economy.”

Rising costs

Louise said that together with these issues, something she has been talking about for a long time is the rising cost of running their business.

“It’s not just our operation, we are a totally compliant company, and we only service corporate customers, but the cost of running this business now – every year – is becoming increasingly dearer,” she said.

“We are having to charge out our labour at upwards of $35 an hour, which impacts our customers, they need a bit of productivity for that amount of money.

“We run our payroll through the Xero platform, but because our workers are casuals and are sometimes paid on ‘piece’ rate, how do we even track those hours or devise another manual ledger?”

That’s just one aspect of the Payne’s problem, the wider and more pressing issue for the company is the difficulty they have in attracting and retaining quality workers due to visa restrictions.

Louise and Alan said the investment they have to make to train their workers to get up to speed, ready to go onto a farm to prune, is expensive and time-consuming.  

“We had a very good, core group of Taiwanese workers who we trained at TAFE, they did everything they could and were excellent pruners, and we implored government to give us a chance to sponsor them so they could stay in Australia – but no, they’ve now gone back to Taiwan,” Alan said.

“We had our Taiwanese team of pruners that were quite capable of doing anywhere between 350 to 500 trees a day, many of the workers we have at the moment are struggling to do 250.” 

Alan said that in the absence of quality workers, and in order to maintain the level of productivity required in the field, he now has a supervisor on the job monitoring the workers to ensure everything is up to standard.

“Our core group a year or so ago didn’t need that level of supervision, and so that adds another layer of cost to our business,” he said.

Louise said that in the absence of a sponsorship option for horticulture workers, and the much talked about ‘Ag Visa’, retaining the staff they invest in is impossible.

“Every single problem that we have in our business comes back to turnover of staff, because the fact is, the only people you can draw on are backpackers, and you can’t retain staff due to visa conditions,” she said.

“I’ve been lobbying for almost four years now at every level that I can find to get some rational co-operation from government to enable us to sponsor some key staff. 

“If I open that cupboard over there, you’ll find hundreds and hundreds of employee files of people who have come through our business, imagine what it’s like trying to keep on top of the visas? We only want 20 key staff.

“It’s impossible. We’re at the point where a week ago we thought we just can’t do it anymore, the stress is unbearable at the moment for us and it’s getting worse.

“All of our best people that we have invested so much time and energy into are all gone – so we have started the season with another lot of (new) people.

“Our equipment and work is not without hazards. Every time we have to start a new, inexperienced worker, our risk of serious injury increases.

“We have spent all those hours inducting them at our cost, paying them while we monitor them in the first few days as we try them out, and already three of them have gone, most people want a ‘factory job’.” 

It seems that the voice of farmers has been drowned out by those defending the stance that there are already other visa options available, particularly the proponents of the Pacific Islander Worker Program, coupled with people like the ACTU’s Sally McManus who has been calling for a cut in temporary work visa numbers. 

As Louise and Alan would attest, it’s the local workers, or rather the lack of them, that is the problem. 

Mildura’s unemployment rate was recently stated as being at a new low – hence their reliance on people like their dedicated and reliable Taiwanese workforce.

The other issue that plagues Louise is the application process when she advertises for workers.

“We need fit people, willing to work hard and to travel to other locations,” she said. “I placed two advertisements on the Government’s JobActive service and received 148 resumes – all automatically generated by key words – and out of those there was only one person who I contacted, because the rest were all totally unsuited for the role that had been described, were over qualified or only wanted a narrow number of hours.

“That applicant was a Canadian lady, who ended up saying she didn’t want to come up to the region – I had to sort through all of those to harvest nothing!”

Louise highlighted another issue that the penalty rate rules for horticulture has introduced.

“The new penalty rates will now make it prohibitive to prune large plantations in a short window of time, which can be the case if the harvest has been late in finishing,” she said. “In the case of an almond plantation, the window for us to come in and prune hundreds of thousands of trees, to clean up the orchard floor and burn-off before they bring the bees for pollination in August, is miniscule.

“Therefore, to get the job done in time, you have to work around the clock and exceed the 38 hour or ‘ordinary hour’ parameters, which may then attract the penalty rates.

“Worse than that, there are properties that are now saying there is no access on weekends so that the farm’s own staff won’t exceed the 38 hours, and so that compounds the problem, because the workers can’t earn the money that they could before.” 

Desperate for work

Louise said that they have backpackers at the moment who are desperate to get their ’88 days’. 

“They want to work every hour that they can possibly get,” she said. 

“When you are on a first-year holiday maker visa, you can apply for a second year visa if you do 88 days work in a regional area – they are not going to make it if they are restricted to 38 hours.”

Louise said the horticulture industry needs to be voicing its discontent more strongly.

“How do you sustain a sector which is a major pillar of our economy under these arrangements? As a region, and as a sector, we need to be far more vocal,” she said. 

“Everybody should be telling their stories, speaking to the Federal Member to put pressure on government to address what’s happening here. 

“As a sector and an industry, we are not being given the respect from government that we require, the policy is being driven by arrogance and short-terms agendas, whereas, we, as an industry – the businesses and the families that contribute, have to endure long after the current administration.”