But road to worker recruitment is still arduous
By Sonia Campbell
On-going pandemic-related worker shortages continue to put an enormous strain on most banana businesses. Many would argue that it has been one of the greatest challenges growers have ever had to face.
For many, the Seasonal Worker Program (SWP) and Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) have been a lifeline
in recruiting staff. However securing SWP/PLS workers as both an Approved Employer (AE) and through labour hire recruitment firms has taken an exhausting toll on a large portion of growers, along with their support staff.
For a start, the portion of seasonal workers available is slim, given we have a nation of farmers across agriculture competing for the same employment pool.
At every corner there seems to be complex roadblocks, particularly if you are a smaller grower. Border restrictions are constantly changing. Quarantine options and general accommodation availability are dire. Organising international flights (including chartered flights) can change on a daily basis. Reforms to working holiday visa arrangements will have severe consequences for farmers Australia-wide. And government approval processes required for every step of recruiting seasonal workforces – both big and small – at times seem almost insurmountable.
Since COVID, many banana growers have been working with labour hire companies to secure workers, but for most this has become a full-time job. Some have gone down the road of seeking accreditation as AEs themselves. This has financial benefits and can often also streamline the process of recruiting workers. However, becoming an AE for the uninitiated is daunting, time-consuming and extremely taxing.
Approved Employers and the PLS/SWP
Once you are approved as an AE, there are a whole new set of challenges.
During two PLS/SWP information workshops held in Innisfail and Mareeba in November, growers were given an insight into other growers’ experiences with the PLS/SWP, including quarantine challenges and applying for recruitment as an AE.
Here’s more on their stories.
Jess Howe, Rock Ridge Farming, Atherton Tablelands
Currently employing more than 200 people across its multiple banana and avocado operations, Rock Ridge Farming first became involved in the SWP about five years ago (pre-COVID).
Jess Howe, whose parents Peter and Chelley Howe own and operate the family-run business, says seasonal workers have now become an integral part of their enterprise -particularly during the pandemic. But the path to recruiting seasonal workers, along with choosing to become an Approved Employer, has been extremely challenging.
“We started off with just small groups of (SWP) workers sourced through labour hire companies. We realised that with backpackers working on our banana farms, it was hard to keep on top of labour requirements,” Ms Howe said.
“We probably started off with maybe eight seasonal workers. Even having just that eight core staff that you know will turn up for work every day, that was very beneficial for our business.
“And then eight turned into 20. Twenty turned into 30.”
As numbers grew, Rock Ridge Farming decided it was more economical for them to be an Approved Employer and Jess, as part of her role as Operations Manager, was tasked with guiding the company through the accreditation process.
“I thought it would be easy,” she recalled.
“But it’s not that easy at all. There was a lot of back and forth with both the SWP and the PLS. There
is a lot of information they need like financial statements, lengthy application forms about your labour requirements, why you need the workers, how you will support the workers.”
After securing their accreditation, the company’s first cohort of 20 workers from Vanuatu arrived in December 2019.
“The first recruitment was definitely the trickiest. There are a lot of forms that need to be filled out in terms of (worker) welfare, including a well-being plan, your accommodation plans. It just seems like the first time is such a massive process and it was really daunting.”
“Our second recruitment we did (in 2020 when COVID struck) had to be an on-farm quarantine recruitment, so we had to dive right into the deep end with that one.”
Unable to fill an entire plane load of workers themselves, Rock Ridge worked together with other Tableland AEs to charter a flight from Vanuatu.
“That in itself, was an extreme learning curve. We jumped onto the bandwagon of on-farm quarantine as soon as it was announced. We knew we needed workers and it was going to be the only way to get them in.
“So as soon as the international quarantine plan process was announced we got our applications in. We were talking to other employers such as Jobs Australia and other labour hire companies. We don’t have any accommodation on our farms, so we used my grandparents’ and uncle and aunty’s on- farm accommodation that had capacity for 60. Other AEs had beds for 40 or beds for 100, and somehow we got a plane load of 160 over.”
“But of course, all these plans (to gain approval for on-farm quarantine) needed to be approved by DAF and Queensland Health, so there is months, and months, and months from when you think, ‘I need workers’ to when they can actually get onto the ground and on your farm.”
Preparing for the future
The company has also used regional facilities to quarantine and house workers, however with local accommodation options in severe short supply, Rock Ridge is now planning to build its own on-farm housing.
“One of the hardest things is finding accommodation. So, we are looking at building our own accommodation and we are going to build it in such a way that if we need to quarantine say 80 people, we can facilitate that. But nothing has started to be built yet, it’s still in the works.”
“Obviously we’re all optimistic that things will go back to normal and hopefully there is no such thing as quarantine in six months’ time, but you never know, there could be COVID round 2 or a completely new virus that hits us in two years.”
Regardless of what the future holds, Ms Howe said seasonal workers were now a mainstay in their ever-growing business.
“We now have three full time staff just managing that program. There is a lot of work involved in looking after the workers and making sure they are happy and healthy while they are here.
“We would be absolutely lost without our seasonal workers. I couldn’t imagine what would happen
if the program shut down. It’s become like the backbone of our business really.”
Sabrina Brick, Mackay Farming Group
As Pacific Workforce Manager for Australia’s biggest banana producer, Sabrina Brick has facilitated four recruitments of seasonal workers to Far North Queensland for the Mackay’s in the past 10 months.
Despite having extensive background in labour recruitment, Ms Brick said the unpredictable and ever-changing landscape of COVID made initial attempts to meet SWP/PLS application processes extremely difficult, particularly when it came to addressing quarantine requirements.
“Our experience in the beginning was quite frustrating. We started in February (2021), so
it was quite intense trying to get through the applications that we needed to do. You had to redo an application every time you wanted to do another on-farm quarantine, so you had to start basically from scratch every time.
“That was quite challenging. But we were all finding our feet – ourselves, DAF, Queensland Health, basically everyone involved.”
Ms Brick said Mackay’s have accommodated workers in both on-farm quarantine and regional quarantine facilities but believed on-farm arrangements worked better for all parties involved.
“On-farm we find is better, especially during quarantine, because your team (of workers) is kept busy. They are active, they are learning new skills, they are getting adjusted to our climate and they are getting adjusted to having to get up and go to work each day,” she said.
“We found regional quarantine more challenging for the workers themselves because they didn’t leave the facility for two weeks. And then, when they came out of quarantine, it’s a bigger adjustment for them, because you’ve basically got people who’ve slept for two weeks.”
Ms Brick said the application processes for regional facilities was easier than getting approval for on- farm quarantine. However, getting smaller groups of workers into regional quarantine was the most challenging, as it requires working with other AEs and labour hire companies to co-ordinate flights and accommodation to meet capacity requirements.
“We struggled with the regional facility for our smaller recruitments, because you’re working with different parties, with different applications to get people on the one flight and the same facility. It’s a lot of applications that need to be processed and co-ordinated at the same time.”
Rock Ridge in conjunction with Mackay’s recently gained approval for their own regional quarantine facility, at Mungalli. But, with quarantine arrangements likely to be a requirement for some time, Ms Brick believes growers’ quarantine options shouldn’t be limited to their region.
“I think it would be good to not only look at Far North Queensland. Given that flights from Brisbane are fairly regular, I think it would be really good as a strategic move to have something in place that encompasses the whole of Queensland.
“Whether it’s using the Grantham facility or another facility in the south-east area that we can actually put five people on a plane and they can do their quarantine down in the south east corner and then get flown to Cairns before going on-farm. I think that is something that would be very beneficial.”
Despite the challenges of the SWP/PLS during the pandemic, Ms Brick has full praise for the program.
“Overall, it has been very positive. I do really appreciate the efforts that the DAF team puts in. Particularly in the beginning, when they were the middleman between us and Queensland Health.
“We were not getting (job) applications in terms of backpackers or locals as much as we needed, and they are not sticking around as much as they have in the past. So having these programs available to us and having the ability to utilise them, it’s been invaluable to our business.”