Tasmania’s fruit picker shortage is a much bigger problem than simply the backpacker tax, with industry stakeholders calling for a state-wide solution before the autumn fruit season begins.
The picker shortage is a combination of a number of factors, Fruit Growers Tasmania business development manager Phil Pyke said.
Two major issues affecting the state’s growers are a lack of consistent agricultural work placements for Tasmanian workers and Australia’s reputation for backpacker exploitation.
“We’ve got a number of pressure factors,” Mr Pyke said.
“Nobody is dealing with it; nobody wants to deal with it.”
TASMANIAN FRUIT PICKERS
John Brown from Sassafras Orchards is anticipating having problems finding the 120 fruit pickers he will need in March and April, and had similar recruitment woes last season.
Tasmanian fruit growers use a number of methods to find workers, but Mr Pyke said they were fast running out of recruitment options.
“There is no consistent place where people can find work,” he said.
“We’ve got fruit that can’t be picked and this is just going to get worse. We’re not tackling the issue of pathways to work.”
Instead of relying on job agencies, social media, word of mouth or potential workers dropping in, Mr Pyke suggested introducing eight interconnected community-owned job hubs within Tasmania.
The hubs would employ staff and assign people to producers who need workers.
“It’s time to have the discussion about the lack of consistent pathways for agricultural employment in Tasmania,” Mr Pyke said.
“Let’s start having this conversation. We have it every year. We can’t solve it nationally, but we can in Tasmania.”
Primary Industries minister Jeremy Rockliff said the government understood the seasonal worker issue and was working closely with Fruit Growers Tasmania and relevant stakeholders.
“We provided funding to establish the TasAg jobs portal and this portal is proving very successful in linking producers across various agriculture and aquaculture sectors with job seekers,” Mr Rockliff said.
The jobs portal is complemented by a Scan of Seasonal and Itinerant Labour, with a follow-up study to quantify demand, he said.
The second part of this equation is Australia’s reputation as a place where young backpackers will be exploited and sexually assaulted at remote farms.
English filmmaker Katherine Stoner travelled to Australia on working visa in 2015 and is now crowdfunding via Indiegogo to raise money to fund her film 88 Days, documenting “modern day slavery in Australia”.
“Every year thousands of young people travel to Australia, to start a year of working and travelling on a working holiday visa… There are far too many stories of backpackers getting financially, sexually and violently exploited,” Ms Stoner explains on the website.
While there have been no claims of this happening on Tasmania farms, the state is suffering by association.
“We have a bad reputation for exploiting workers. There have been claims of servitude and sexual activity,” Mr Pyke said.
“There’s no allegations of anything like this happening here, but we’re dealing with the fallout from it.
“The majority are good employers, but some aren’t. The backpacker network is very strong and there’s a lot of self regulation, so if something happens they won’t work there.”
Another complicating factor is the difference in standards required by customers for Tasmanian fruit.
“[Tasmania] has different requirements when it comes to fruit: it has to be a certain size and certain colour for certain markets. On the mainland they tend to strip pick,” Mr Pyke said.
“Growers are finding it hard to keep people. Europeans are walking off farms. You just can’t get the people to stay.”
These issues have combined to make Tasmanian fruit picking a less attractive option for itinerant workers.
“Backpackers will no longer be a viable workforce so that leaves locals, Tasmanian-based migrants and Pacific Islanders,” Mr Pyke said.