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Farm safety concerns as labour shortage sullied by union slur

Updated: Sep 7, 2021

GrainGrowers chair Brett Hosking has expressed his concerns that farm safety for grain growers could be a casualty of critical labour shortages hampering growers. However, the Australian Workers' Union criticised some farmers of seeking to make fast money out of cheaper Pacific labour.

Quambatook Victorian farmer Mr Hosking told FlowNews24 that farmers based in Queensland that he was in contact with had missed the opportunity to secure the workers they needed for harvest:

“Talking to some of the guys up in Queensland...for those guys the opportunity to bring over overseas workers – that windows closed and by the time they source [workers] and bring them in to do their two weeks quarantine, effectively the harvest is in full swing.”

On Monday, the Australian Workers Union hit back at farmers concerned about the labour shortage.

AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton wrote to federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud calling on the Minister to urgently answer a range of key questions about the new visa agriculture visa, claiming:

"It appears this new visa will throw our Pacific friends under a bus, all because some dodgy farmers want more access to more exploitable workers. At a time when China is circling for influence in our region, Australia's apparently going to trash our Pacific friendships so a handful of farmers can save some bucks by treating Asian workers like serfs.
"The Prime Minister should tell his coalition patterns he's not going to hurt Australia's Pacific friends, and our international reputation, to appease a handful of greedy fruit growers who are addicted to labour exploitation."

Minister Littleproud hit back at the claims later on Monday, telling FlowNews24:

"The AWU are just scaremongering. They've known from the start that these jobs are all market tested, whether they be under the Pacific scheme or the new ag visa. Australians get the first crack at these jobs."
"Farmers can't sit around and wait for someone to turn up. When their crops are ready and they're ripe. If they don't have the labour, they miss out."

Hosking also relayed his fears that labour shortages could pressure farmers into pushing themselves to limits that he forecasts may be unsafe in their workplace environments.

“When that weather front's coming in and the crops are ripe and ready in the paddock, no grower will go home and say ‘I need to get a rest’ and go to bed, they’re just going to push themselves that little bit harder and we really don’t want that happening.”

Hosking went on to emphasize that workers’ safety is paramount despite the need for growers to capitalise on important harvesting periods.

“We want growers to be able to enjoy a harvest and take the crop off but take care of themselves and their families as well, so if we can make sure we’ve got the workers we can keep everyone a lot safer.”

Minister Littleproud took aim at the AWU's claims as a negative public contribution to commentary about Australian farming:

"The fact that they continue to say that farmers, this generalisation that farmers are exploiting workers all the time is demonising Australian agriculture in an unfounded way."
"Australians have not wanted to do this work. There aren't enough Australians to do it anyway and many of them are thousands of kilometres away. Farmers have been patient for far too long, it's time for them to make a quid and allow them to make investment decisions predicated on the fact they know there'll be someone there to help them grow it and pick it."

FlowNews24 sought a response to GrainGrowers' farm safety concerns from Mary-Anne Thomas, Victoria’s Minister for Agriculture and Minister for Regional Development.

Thomas responded by clarifying the importance of overseas workers for the farming industry at this time and conveyed optimism that her government could secure the Pacific labour that Australian farmers in season:

“We’ve proven we can coordinate with other states to provide a safe quarantine pathway for Pacific workers...more than 1,400 workers requested by approved employers have already arrived in Victoria to support our agriculture industry.”
Arrangements to secure a quarantine pathway for Pacific Workers for the upcoming harvest season are being finalised with the Tasmanian and Commonwealth governments and an announcement around this is imminent.”

Minister Littleproud took aim at the Victorian and Western Australian government's reticence to quarantine farm labour in their own states:

"They're the two governments that won't do the quarantining in their own states. they're trying to send them to other states to do that quarantine and its adding to the complexity.
"Unfortunately the Andrews (Victorian) government has been leading the way in not even being prepared to re-sign a contract with Tasmania, who is taking all the risk for Victoria, in a contract that ends this month."
"There's no certainty for any farmer in Victoria, they're beside themselves, unfortunately we've seen this in the grains industry in Western Australia where (premier) McGowan has turned their back on them."


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