Border restrictions open up jobs in farming and agriculture

Posted: 30th Mar

Border restrictions put in place by the State and Federal governments in response to COVID-19 are likely to increase the skills shortage in Western Australia's agricultural industry, with the sector most likely to draw on those from other industries with transferable skills.

A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs told Farm Weekly temporary visa holders were in Australia who have skills that would be in high demand during the crisis, including agriculture and other essential services.

"We are focussed on this and have been working with industry to provide more flexibility in relation to visas and conditions," the spokesperson said.

This is on the back of Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud's announcement last week that changes to visa arrangements were imminent, with more than 140,000 backpackers and 7000 Pacific Islanders supporting the workforce.

WAFarmers president Rhys Turton said as a result of the border restrictions which have stopped visa and interstate workers from entering WA, there was likely to be an increase in seasonal jobs, both skilled and unskilled, available in the agricultural sector.

"The agricultural industry will aim towards helping those other industries that have already been hit hard, like hospitality, tourism and even aviation, to give those people the opportunity to get a job in agriculture," Mr Turton said.

"We won't forget the backpackers but it might be a little bit difficult to include them potentially."

Stuart Willis, from specialty rural recruitment business Rural Enterprises Australia, said he had been busy over the past few weeks trying to fill roles that had been left open due to the border restrictions.

"When they shut down the flights last week, that obviously had a big impact," Mr Willis said.

"We've had a lot of farmers calling us because the regular employees they've sourced aren't able to get there, so they need us to help fill those positions.

"Quite a few of our New Zealander candidates decided to stay in their own country for fear of coming over here and not being able to get back home, as well as people that were coming over on their working holiday visas.

"A lot of New Zealander workers come over to WA for seeding, because that's usually a quieter time for them and the skill level we require for seeding is quite high, as we need people that have a machinery and farming background."

Mr Willis said it was important for skilled workers whose visas might be expiring in the coming months to be extended so they could help fill roles coming into harvest.

"There's always been a skills shortage in agriculture but the closing of our borders is obviously going to increase that skills shortage," Mr Willis said.

With two thirds of the company's candidates being foreigners on working holiday visas and New Zealanders, he said the labour gap would provide an opportunity for Australians who had lost their jobs to find work in the agricultural industry.

"I suspect, in the future, we will probably be pulling suitable candidates from other trades and industries like mining, who have those transferable skills and maybe students who have a farming background to fill some of these roles," Mr Willis said.

"For us, it's about knowing our clients so that we can work within their expectations.

"We know some farmers who are good facilitators and trainers, so they're happy to train their employees up a bit, while others require their employees to be skilled-up and ready to go."

However, Mr Willis said the main priority would be to keep farmers in the community safe and unexposed to COVID-19.

"If farmers get sick and need to be isolated or worse, obviously that is going to have a big impact, so I think it's another thing we need to focus," Mr Willis said.

Coomalbidgup grains and livestock farmer Tim Scott, who has two employees and will employ another two over harvest, said the majority of his workers over the years had come from New Zealand.

"We have struggled in the past to get skilled workers, with harvest an issue more so than seeding, so I'm sure these extra restrictions will have an impact on how we source our workers," Mr Scott said.

He said a smaller concern at this point was having access to his usual seed, which he sourced from over east.

"Our Roundup Ready seed comes from Victoria and that still hasn't turned up, so little things like that could be an issue, as well as access to machinery parts etc," he said.

"We have most of our chemicals already on the farm and fuel isn't an issue at this point, so if the seed doesn't turn up, then you just go to plan B."

"I guess it's just a little bit of the unknown."

Mr Turton said WAFarmers wanted to reassure the public that our local farmers and producers had Western Australia's back.

"We will always put Western Australians first, even though we're an export State," Mr Turton said.

"Food security for this State is a priority and we will always produce food safely and reliably.

"There's not a shortage of food, it's just the hoarding that has placed real pressure on logistics to get food to the supermarkets.

"We grow a whole lot more than our population needs here in Australia, so we are well placed to deal with the impacts of COVID-19."

Source: Farm Weekly - https://www.farmweekly.com.au/story/6697529/border-restrictions-open-up-jobs-in-ag/