COVID-19 has led to unprecedented labour market disruption with farmers struggling to retain and recruit critical workers during harvest, with national demand for casual labour expected to peak next month with up to 26,000 jobs likely to go unfilled. The Approved Employers Association has identified the demand for workers from the Pacific in Queensland for the first half of 2021 at 4,500 workers (more than 25 plane loads) in comparison to the two planeloads of workers that arrived in the state this year.
The ongoing labour shortage has significantly impacted the agriculture sector with farmers reporting increasing fatigue and more near misses. Animal welfare is also front of mind for many producers who need a ready supply suitably skilled personnel. While Queensland has now recorded $35 million in crop losses and a drop in agricultural production, which has left seasonal growers unable to forward plan and determine if they should plant their crops for the next season.
On-farm quarantine has been presented as a potential solution for the agriculture’s workforce challenges. However, not all growers have their own on-farm accommodation, let alone accommodation that falls within the Queensland Government’s guidelines for a suitable quarantine facility. And once a horticulture location completes on-farm quarantine, this facility is then utilised for the workers ongoing accommodation and can no longer be used for future arrivals. Therefore, on-farm quarantine alone will not address the current worker shortages.
The Queensland Farmers’ Federation is supporting FIP Group and Powerpac as they consider scalable regional solutions to quarantine Pacific workers before going on farm. As an example, a facility in the Lockyer Valley has been identified as a potential Regional Quarantine Hub, and has been inspected by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and WorkSafe Queensland, deemed suitable and is supported by local leaders. Clearly, time is of the essence, therefore the sector is calling on the Queensland Government to grant priority approval for this facility to ensure Queensland has an agricultural workforce solution that is safe, well resourced, fit for purpose and responsive to the labour disruption the state is experiencing.