Farms would benefit from agile immigration programs for hiring foreign workers
The timing of when agricultural produce ripens, and the intense periods when labour is required, are strongly affected by that year’s weather. This means that farm schedules need to flexibly adjust to the weather experienced each year. However, under current arrangements for some foreign seasonal workers, growers have to fix hiring start and end dates ahead of when the fruit picking period is known. Weather records show that the start of the peak season varied by 25 days from 1960 to 2017, with a big shift every eight years on average: foreign seasonal workers could miss the peak in those years.
The chart below shows the estimated period when mangoes need to be picked and packed for each year from 1960 to 2017, with the 2-week period of peak labour demand highlighted in orange. Over the 58 years analysed the range of earliest to latest start of the peak picking season spanned 25 calendar dates. This could result in situations where there is little or no overlap in the dates when fruit pickers are most needed between one year and the next. In extreme cases, this means that if seasonal workers were recruited based on the dates of peak demand for the previous year, their employment would miss the period when most fruit was ripe for picking. Examples of this situation are highlighted with red boxes in the chart below, and occurred on average about once every eight years. Where growers have to lock in employment dates months in advance, they are left with an undesirable choice: either bear the costs of hiring seasonal workers for a substantial proportion of their employment where there is little work for them, or run the risk of fruit spoiling and being wasted from not being picked on time.
Ideally growers require hiring arrangements for seasonal workers where dates can be flexibly adjusted each year to match when fruiting occurs. It should be noted that foreign seasonal workers are potentially vulnerable to exploitation. For example, visas may require them to work in order to remain in the country, they may be less familiar with Australian workers’ rights, and working in remote locations isolates them from support if conflicts arise. Any increase in flexibility for growers would therefore likely also need to consider protections and outcomes for workers. More agility in programs for foreign seasonal workers could enhance benefits to both growers and seasonal workers.