Labour Shortage Sours A Bumper Australian Harvest

By Hari Yellina
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Tony Halfhide, a retired Sydney accountant, has been packing his luggage and playing his guitar for weeks. The 65-year-old has been waiting for a phone call from a farmer friend close to Moree in northern NSW to say the harvest is ready. That call came this week, and Mr Halfhide is ready to make the 10-hour commute to work for the most of November for the second year in a row. Mr Halfhide has retrained this year, earning his truck driver’s licence, and plans to trade in his station waggon for a semi-trailer. “I had to acquire a special authorization from Roads and Maritime Services to do the test since COVID had shut down the testing,” he explained. “I’m aware of how the recent drought has impacted the family; I don’t require the funds, so I’d rather go and assist them. It’s for the reason that I’m doing it.”

For over four weeks, the Sydneysider would tow 30 tonnes of grain from the fields to the grain distribution warehouse in the heart of Moree, putting in 14-hour days. “The border controls have halted the annual flow of labour that begins in the south of Queensland,” Mr Halfhide explained. “It moves all the way through Queensland, New South Wales, and Western Australia, and it’s the same demographic of individuals… and they’d generally work the full season from one end of the nation to the other.” Farmers across the country are scrambling for skilled labour due to domestic and international border closures at a year when they can least afford it.

According to agribusiness Rabobank, Australia is on track for a second straight blockbuster winter harvest, with total output expected to be just 5% below last year’s near-record crop. In Queensland, harvest is well underway for Scott Loughnan, who spoke to AAP from the header he was harvesting on. According to the latest feedback, the mixed crop farmer is experiencing an incredible wheat and barley crop, although the chickpeas have been a little disappointing.

Overview

In September in the Northern Territory, the shortage of unskilled labour prompted NT Farmers to pay a million dollars to fly in almost 400 unskilled workers from Vanuatu and Samoa. NSW Farmers has been raising the issue of worker mobility since the pandemic started. They say their call to the NSW and Commonwealth governments for the introduction of an on-farm quarantine pilot fell on deaf ears.


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