THE Australian Workers' Union has taken aim at the horticultural sector, saying claims of a labour shortage were an excuse used to "justify exploitative working conditions".
Using the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARES) figures, which stated 18 per cent of vegetable farms and 14pc of fruit and nut farms had trouble filling vacancies were lower than the 44pc experienced by business across Australia.
Australian Workers' Union national secretary, Daniel Walton, said the research shows the true motivation behind the federal government's expansion of the exploitative working holiday visa is an exploitative agenda.
"This research blows claims of a labour shortage in horticulture out of the water. It is a fiction that is used to justify exploitative working conditions," he said.
However the National Farmers' Federation had already raised questions about the ABARES figures, back when they were released at the start of October.
NFF chief executive officer Tony Maher said the findings were in contrast to NFF's own findings.
"We have strong reservations about the report as we know the farm labour shortage is most severe in horticulture and while it is still a serious problem, it is less so in the dairy and broadacre sectors," he said.
"The survey doesn't align with what farmers are saying, did not cover many of the main fruit growing regions and instead focused on fruit growing in the Murray-Darling Basin.
"We are concerned that the findings are unhelpful in providing up-to-date data and positive steps that can be taken to deliver policies and initiatives to widen the farm workforce pool."
Mr Maher said a University of Adelaide report released this year showed 40pc of vegetable growers had been unable to fill vacancies across a five year period and 22pc said they experienced difficulties attracting workers "almost all of the time".
Peak vegetable and potato industry body Ausveg said the ABARES survey confirmed the industry's reliance on an overseas workforce.
Ausveg national public affairs manager Tyson Cattle said it was no surprise vegetable growers were high users of overseas workers because they struggle to find a consistent workforce.
"Vegetable farms have a high rate of casual and contract labour because they are harvesting year-round," he said.
Mr Cattle said it was not simply a matter of placing people in jobs.
"It's not about just putting people in roles and thinking they can do the work. We need the right people, and with the right changes to visa settings, we will see a huge upside," he said.
"The Seasonal Worker Program is a great program, but of course it has fewer farms using it than backpackers, because fewer farms have a harvest window of 3-9 months.
"There still isn't a workable visa option for established businesses who require workers for longer than nine months.
"Growers would love to employ a local workforce, but there are some real struggles in accessing them, from a lack of vocational and higher education opportunities in this space, right down to a lack of local workers wanting to work in horticulture."
Mr Walton said the labour-intensive and seasonal nature of horticultural work meant farmers were moving away from backpacker labour schemes, towards the Seasonal Worker Program.
"Unscrupulous operators have realised backpackers are ripe for exploitation and have little incentive to complain or push for proper conditions and pay," he said.
"The Seasonal Workers Program is better regulated and is increasingly being taken up by farmers looking for safe and reliable labour.
"Agriculture is a vibrant and potentially high-growth industry. It should be offering quality, long-term employment, but instead it is riddled with systemic problems of low pay, wage theft, and foreign worker abuse.
"That abuse is enabled by shonky visa offerings like the working holiday visa.
"Expanding the current working holiday visa to more easily ship in workers will only serve to put those workers at risk of exploitation and drive more ethical producers out of the industry."
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