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Peak grains body calls for workforce action


Overcoming workforce shortages remains an ongoing concern for Grain Producers Australia (GPA) and our members to deliver lasting, sustainable solutions - not just to get through another huge harvest.


Since the May federal election, workforce has been one of the priority issues actioned by the new Federal Government and we're buoyed by this approach.


Labor's process has involved engaging with a comprehensive range of stakeholders while raising the core issues leading into the Jobs and Skills Summit held in Canberra last week.


GPA's views were fed directly into one of the agricultural workforce roundtable meetings held by Agriculture Minister Murray Watt, along with his Departmental officials and advisers.


Our feedback to Minister Watt at the industry forum we attended in Brisbane the week before the Summit reflected the views and ideas put forward by our State Members, through the GPA Policy Council - as per the national policy and action plan we developed last year.


This plan resulted from the serious concerns about workforce shortages which escalated ahead of last year's record harvest, after another big one the year before - especially the dramatic loss of traditional workers from the Northern Hemisphere entering Australia on Working Holiday Maker visas.


These workers with the skill and experience needed to operate heavy machinery during surge periods on-farm, such as harvest, are vitally important to farm productivity.


But two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent border closures has severely limited their availability, with about 100,000 fewer in the country.


While the borders are now open, and the return of these visa holders is expected to be steady, the need remains immediate.


We're facing another big harvest that's due to start in coming weeks.


Many growers called on family and friends to drive headers or chaser bins and help get them through last year's record 62 million tonne-harvest as a short-term fix, but this may not be an option again this year.


We're continuing to urge solutions and support to try to prevent the compound social and economic impacts of fatigue and burnout for farmers and rural communities.


Minister Watt's recognition of these serious issues, and his efforts to find pragmatic solutions to support the grain sector's genuine needs, are genuinely welcomed and recognised by GPA.


While some people accuse politicians of talking too much, the Minister's listening skills were on clear display at the Brisbane roundtable as he absorbed the thoughts and ideas articulated by agricultural representatives - including our initiatives.


As mentioned in his National Rural Press Club address in early August, it's refreshing to have a government that listens, not lectures, and industry will continue to be key partners as the new Labor government develops its agenda.


This approach was demonstrated by outcomes delivered at the Jobs and Skills Summit, which were supported by GPA's members.


While we look forward to more details and involvement, Minister Watt revealed the Albanese Government has developed an historic agriculture workforce tripartite agreement.


Signed by the National Farmers' Federation (NFF), it will see agricultural groups working with the government and unions to resolve workforce issues - with the first meeting due early next month.


The agreement committed to ways of moving forward to resolve long-term issues, and explore opportunities such as agricultural-specific skills, apprenticeships and training programs.


Led by WAFarmers and former Grains Council President, Mic Fels, GPA has called for a "paddock ready-harvest ready" apprentice training program, with professional placement on farm, to help with resolving skills gaps and incentivise young farmers to take up agricultural careers.


Other opportunities to be explored by the new working group include: attracting more Australians to the agricultural sector; maximising value and security from visa classes; and encouraging wider industry participation by women, First Nations people, youth, people with disability and older Australians.


Encouraging more older Australians into agriculture was a priority identified in GPA's national policy and advocacy plan, to incentivise retirees with better taxation and payment arrangements.


That's why it was also pleasing to see Labor's announcement from the Summit that Age and Veterans Pensioners can earn an extra $4000 this financial year, without losing any of their pension.


The temporary income bank top-up will increase the amount pensioners can earn from $7800 to $11,800 this year, before their pension is reduced.


This option may also support Operation Grain Harvest Assist, which GPA launched last year where about 200-300 former Australian Defence Force (ADF) members were enabled to work on grain farms throughout Australia at harvest, after being connected via social media.


The $4000 incentive is welcomed as a good first step, but we believe much more can be done - and should be done - to try to tap into the experience and capacity of retirees, to work in rural communities - not just on grain farms at harvest or seeding.


GPA looks forward to continuing to build on this spirit of cooperation with our State Members and their grower members who are also represented, through their NFF memberships, in the process of this new tripartite agreement.


GPA will also continue advocating our other federal election policy priorities with the new government, while seeking to build stronger engagement and partnerships to align on and collaborate to deliver outcomes which help boost the profitability and sustainability of all growers.


This opinion piece was first published on September 6, 2022 at Farm Weekly



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