The reality of worker shortages

Banana businesses of all sizes have been hard hit by ongoing pandemic-related worker shortages.

The situation is constantly changing. Here, four growers share their experience so far.

Alarm bells started sounding more than 18 months ago. As COVID-19 made its way across states, countries and seas, many Australian industries raised concern about a potential decline in their available workforce.

Agriculture – including the banana industry – was at the front of that charge, warning that the impacts of reduced mobility could be dire.

While everyone agrees that health must come first, the impact of worker shortages on many banana businesses has now become a devastating reality. 

Growers have been dealt severe financial blows and are making critical decisions about what to prioritise on their farms – some choosing to cut down fruit they have no staff to process, others cutting back acreage and production.

But, through it all, there’s a sense of soldiering on, appreciation for staff who have stayed and an acceptance that some things are simply out of anyone’s control.

Franziska Inderbitzin, of Red Valley Farms, has serious concerns for the future of the industry.   

“There’s so much uncertainty out there and our industry is very labour intensive,” she said. “If we can’t find the right staff I think there’s a real risk we won’t be viable.” 

The Inderbitzins place huge value on a positive workplace culture and struggled with the COVID-related labour shortages for months.   

“Financially, we were at risk. We couldn’t keep up with our work, the Quality suffered, we had a drop in production as we  had to reduce the production area – it had a big impact,” she explained.  

Thankfully, they have recently been able to secure more workers through on-farm quarantine, a process Ms Inderbitzin describes as a ‘huge undertaking’.  

For the Inderbitzins, the most challenging part – aside from the financial outlay – was simply getting all approvals in the first place. Ms Inderbitzin spent weeks on the phone trying to find the right people to answer her questions, before eventually beginning the paperwork and inspection process to set up their facility.  

“We got through it and we learned a lot. Horticulture – and farming generally – needs people on the ground now. The Federal Government has released figures showing 4.9% unemployment, but despite all the incentives we simply haven’t been able to find any more people. Now, there’s changes to the Working Holiday Visa (so holders are not obliged to work in agriculture) – that’s another big loss.”   

Ms Inderbitzin believes a dedicated Agriculture Visa could provide some relief, but details from Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud’s recent announcement are still to be released. And it’s the detail she believes will be crucial to its success. 

Essentially – if growers decide to bring in employees using this new visa, they should be prepared to commit to providing a good working environment through a scheme like Fair Farms and, in turn, have the workers commit to their business for a longer period of time. The relationship may result in the workers being sponsored, providing more stability and continuation of learned skills in an industry that operates 52 weeks of the year.  

This concept would also help to ease an additional burden facing growers who use the SWP and PLS, with some workers absconding without repercussion.  

“A lot of our current permanent staff have been sponsored. You get to know the people, you work with them, they are happy to be here. It’s a great relationship and some of our  staff have been with us for over 10 years,” Ms Inderbitzin said.  

“Some of the jobs that are really important on the farm, are more suited to permanent staff on a long-term basis.” 

Andrew Serra has spent a lot of time on the phone over the past 12-months. While this isn’t unusual for most business owners, it’s the subject of those phone calls that has changed.

“We’ve been working with [labour hire company] Madec non-stop,” he said. “I’ve been on the phone with them every second day, just pushing.”

Mr Serra, who grows bananas and avocados,
has been looking for workers since this time last year. He’s managed to get by with current staff
but describes the situation as a constant battle. Thankfully, he’s now secured a number of seasonal workers through both the hotel and on-farm quarantine systems.

“I know a number of farms who use these workers and have got very few people currently. The turnover is massive and it’s draining on the farm owners,

obviously, but also on their support staff and management team.

“From our experience, it’s not only us but also our supervisors and managers who have been struggling since Christmas.”

Mr Serra describes the current situation as an employee’s market. The few that are looking for work can pick and choose, and agriculture is often far down their list of desirable jobs.

“Look at the changes to the Working Holiday Visa,” he said. “If you had the choice between working in a bar on Hamilton Island or humping bananas, what are you going to do? I know what I’d be doing in that situation and I don’t blame them,” he said.

This also means he has concerns about what the future holds, when more workers do come back to Australia. He foresees a trickle down effect, where other industries and jobs in agriculture will need to fill before the workers begin to arrive back in bananas.

Like Ms Inderbitzin, he points to the unemployment rate as a sign that while locals are always welcome, there are not a lot of them seeking out work on banana farms.

“That’s a pipe dream,” he said. “The Government can put all the incentives they want out there, but it’s not going to change.”

For Mr Serra, part of the solution lies in working with authorities to set up more quarantine hubs and ensuring appropriate vaccinations are available to those coming from COVID-free countries to work.

“Unfortunately, though, it’s going to be a user pays system,” he said. “The days when you could pick up a worker fresh into the country, without having to pay for quarantine or anything else, are likely done for the next few years at least.

“Some can afford it, some can’t. I understand that. It’s a commercial decision people will have to make.”

It’s not a cheap decision – hotel quarantine, for example, works out at roughly $2,000 a person. But after going through the process, there’s a little light at the end of the tunnel – productivity and the workplace culture have improved.

It’s not over yet, though. There’s always going to be competition with other industries and backpackers can pick and choose their path.

With many banana businesses struggling, particularly those that are smaller, Mr Serra’s advice is to work with reputable Approved Employers to give you the best chance of accessing new workers arriving into the country.

Leon Collins is one of the country’s biggest banana producers and, up until recently, had been struggling to find staff. He’s had to leave fruit in the field as there simply weren’t enough people to process it.

“You – and your staff – can only do so much,” he said. Now, they’ve secured a number of workers from the Pacific Islands but are still chasing people for the shed and packing lines.

“Being such a labour intensive industry, that’s where we fall down. We’re not mechanised, we’re not like grain farming in South Australia or big, open broadacre cropping areas. We are intensive and we employ a lot of labour, 12 months of the year.”

Mr Collins hasn’t seen worker shortages like this since the 1970s, but believes visas are a good place to start.

Like other growers, he has concerns about the changes to the Working Holiday Visa which is likely to see potential employees diverted to other industries like tourism and hospitality.

“In saying that, there are people who want to get in, be part of a team, nurture something and watch it grow. We’ve had people come back after 12 months for another stint of work and take photos of the patches they’ve been involved in planting.”

“COVID is a total mess,” he said. “We’re struggling, and it’s affecting lots of industries, but we’ll get through it.”

For Steve Lizzio, the impact of pandemic-related worker shortages was not what he pictured.

“I thought I would lose more temporary staff, but I actually lost some of my more senior employees,” he explained.

“Even though it wasn’t a lot of workers, that’s where it hurt me. They were either offered jobs at bigger businesses for more money, or COVID meant a change of lifestyle for them.”

Mr Lizzio, of Liverpool River Bananas and MBL Bananas Mission Beach, lost a few other workers along the way but has retained some key staff who have pulled him through.

“It has been tough trying to replace those people – in fact, I haven’t been able to do so yet. A couple of my staff have stepped up and they’re doing quite a good job,” he said.

The Sweeter Banana Co-Operative took a risk when trying to secure their workforce – and it’s one that’s paid off so far.

At Banana Congress 2021, the Co-Operative’s Business Manager Doriana Mangili spoke about how they’d used a $100,000 cash flow boost
from the Federal Government (designed to help businesses employ people during the pandemic) to provide bonuses to their staff.

The Co-Operative, which is also considering employing students, relies mostly on backpackers (and some locals) to maintain their business.

“In the winter we generally lose staff because they don’t get as many hours. We wanted to keep those staff for summer, so we set aside that $100,000 to use as bonuses.”

Throughout July and August last year, Sweeter paid staff for an extra five hours a week. From then
on, they offered bonuses that reached $1000 in January, February and March.

While they suspected they’d get some productivity benefits from this approach, the results as at March had well and truly proved it.

Though the Co-Operative had paid more than $80,000 in bonuses , it had only cost them $13,000 based on a wages per carton figure.

“As soon as we started paying them five hours extra to ‘not work’, they started doing three-and-a-half

days in two-and-a-half,” Ms Mangili said.

They’ve also been able to retain staff, which has had efficiency benefits and reduced the need to retrain.

The Co-Operative plans to take a similar approach this financial year but knows that even incentives like this aren’t necessarily enough to keep people in one place for an extended period of time.

“This year is going to a bigger challenge than last,” she added.