Industry improving worker conditions but costs will add up | OPINION

Industry improving worker conditions but costs will add up | OPINION


Editorial
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Improvements for horticulture workers are necessary, but they'll cost someone.

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EDITORIAL

THE labour shortage squeeze within the fruit, vegetable and nut industry is being felt more than ever.

Industry groups are starting to increase their campaigns to push for change, starting to rattle some politicians' cages a little bit louder.

This is because things are getting desperate.

The summer fruit season is set to roll in and there will be growers out there scratching their heads as to where they will source workers.

Others will have the workers but will be wondering grappling with changes to the Horticulture Award and what it means for their operation.

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Add to this restricted water allocations, northward creeping input prices, crippling transport costs and drought, and it comes as no surprise that mental health is a big concern within the farming community.

The federal government continues to struggle to get its ducks lined up over a dedicated agriculture visa.

There have been other moves such as expanding the number of backpacker visa places available to young Vietnamese people, creating two new regional visas and the pre-election promised National Labour Hire Registration Scheme prior to the federal election, but it seems industry largely remains unconvinced that such avenues will help.

You can hear the urgency in the language used within the column from Ausveg chair, Bill Bulmer.

"Some (growers) are seriously considering exiting the industry," Mr Bulmer said.

"Farmers all over the country who gamble with their livelihoods by planting crops without knowing where their workforce will come from to harvest it are desperate for a consistent and reliable workforce."

No one is holding their breath for an easy fix.

Change is happening though.

Thankfully, it's not one sweeping, government-induced change forced upon industry.

It's been led by the industry itself which is deserving of a big pat on the back.

Other industries, even within agriculture, have been forced to better their ways through a heavy regulation come-down.

The fact it didn't get to that point indicates that, before the media coverage and unions deciding to get involved, horticulture was already trying to better itself.

The Growcom-initiated Fair Farms program is pioneering a new way of farmer-worker relationships.

Keep an eye on it- chances are as more growers adopt it, its attributes will become more well known (maybe even standard) and the envy of other countries.

Another major move has been by the producers behind the Australian Fresh Produce Association (AFPA) who have committed to using reputable labour-hire operators.

In recent years, the National Union of Workers has upped its representation of farm workers, even releasing a report in July outlining some of the concerns and first-hand experiences of farm workers.

Curiously, it isn't the only union pushing to draw in more workers with the Australian Workers' Union in May saying it will explore a strategic alliance with other unions operating in the agriculture supply chain in a bid to "grow union density" in the sector and campaign for employees rights.

Will consumers be willing to pay more for their vegetables, nuts, mushrooms, truffles, berries, fruit and herbs because of increased auditing processes, scheme membership fees and practical, on-the-ground infrastructure changes that may need to happen?

Earlier this year, the Transport Workers' Union, the Australian Workers' Union and the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association came together to pursue safe and fair conditions for workers across its fresh produce and meat supply chains with Coles.

The NUW says supermarkets have the power to create change via a pull-through effect.

By committing to only take produce from those produce companies who already have a worker care scheme in place, they will push industry to better itself.

Will consumers be willing to pay more for their vegetables, nuts, mushrooms, truffles, berries, fruit and herbs because of increased auditing processes, scheme membership fees and practical, on-the-ground infrastructure changes that may need to happen?

History suggests probably not. Aussies have become accustomed to cheap food, especially fresh produce.

And that, it seems, may be the biggest hurdle of all.

With the aim of turning a challenge into an opportunity, there is a chance that a company would be able to use its ethical worker credentials (forced or voluntary) as a promotional tool with the aim of luring consumers (probably more high-end consumers) to parting with more of their dosh.

But that won't sway everyone.

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