OPINION: What is the plan B for agricultural labour?

It’s that time of the year where those grain producers who haven’t been able to source enough labour start to get concerned.

When it finally stops raining and the sun comes out, harvest will be in full swing in South Australia and all hands-on deck will be required.

With a predicted big harvest, the high demand for labour is starkly evident.

Traditionally, grain producers and other agriculture sectors have turned to international and interstate backpackers to fill workforce shortages, as well as through programs such as the Pacific Labour Scheme.

So, it was interesting to hear recently from a key business leader from the Pacific Island region (during a conference I was attending in New Zealand) about his thoughts on workers in his home country working in Australia.

It his view that the Pacific Labour Scheme was creating labour shortages in the Pacific Island region.

Workers will go where they can for the greatest financial return for their family, as long as the working conditions are safe. And that’s a completely sensible approach.

There is no doubt the Pacific Labour Scheme has been highly successful for agriculture in South Australia. Therefore, it was somewhat confronting to hear that our Pacific Island neighbours were struggling to fill their own workforce because their locals were leaving home to fill Australia’s labour shortage.

These comments reinforced the challenges we face in South Australia as a grain industry competing in a global marketplace. Most of our grain is exported, so we are fully aware of the challenges, barriers, and opportunities of playing our part in the worldwide market.

However, we are also extremely reliant on bringing in workers from interstate and internationally. After taking on board the viewpoint raised at the conference, the question that sprung to mind when thinking about how we fill skill gaps in South Australia and Australia is: What’s our Plan B?

When the Australian borders were closed during COVID-19, the fragile nature of our workforce (and reliance on others) was exposed, exacerbating already chronic worker shortages in the grain and agriculture industries.

With harvest at our door, it still feels like grain producers are searching for answers.

By Brad Perry, CEO, Grain Producers SA. This opinion piece was first published in the Stock Journal