Australian horticulture ‘labor crisis’ needs a measured response

In the last two years, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) has been conducting annual surveys with horticultural (fruit, vegetable and nut) farmers on the current labor problems.

The surveys ask horticultural farmers about their monthly use of labor, so it is easy to divide the results into pre- and COVID periods, using March 2020 as the last of the pre-COVID (or pre-lockdown) months. The average total number of workers per month dropped from 148,594 in July 2019–March 2020 to 136,694 in July 2020–March 2021, a reduction of 8%. The results are very similar (8.3% reduction) if we just focus on the peak summer period.

A shortage of workers of about 12,000 is less than half the figure of 26,000 workers predicted by Ernst & Young (EY) on behalf of the industry. The difference is largely due to more Pacific seasonal workers than expected in the EY report.

ABARES also reports that 52% of horticultural farmers experienced more or much more difficulty recruiting. But only 20% reported fewer workers, with the reduction in the number of workers primarily on larger farms, which are generally more reliant on foreign workers.


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