Labor changes to PALM scheme cannot solve agricultural labor issues alone, says minister

Australia’s newly sworn in agriculture minister has admitted that the federal government’s policy stance on expanding Australia’s Pacific Labor Mobility (PALM) scheme may not on its own meet all the challenges. country’s horticultural labor needs.

Labor took office last month and one of its campaign policies was to move away from the Coalition Government’s agricultural visa and to strengthen Australia’s partnerships with the Pacific through a package of new schemes, which, according to him, not only target agriculture, but also security and development challenges in the region. In an interview with a South Australian radio station, Senator Murray Watt told Flow FM that labor issues in the sector were the biggest issue that had come to him since he took over. was appointed minister.

“It’s not something that happened overnight,” he said. “We have had a serious shortage of workers in the agricultural sector for years. Obviously the situation has become even more difficult with COVID and the closure of our international borders. I think our starting point is that, to the extent of the possible, we want to encourage Australians, native Australians, to work in the agricultural sector. And it should be remembered that most agricultural workers are in fact Australian citizens. So we should not always look at overseas for labor supply, but I recognize that there is always a need for a large overseas labor force to work in our agricultural sector, and farmers really need struggling at the moment to find the labor they need. And that’s obviously one of the factors that has a price on the prices of fruit and vegetables when you go to the local supermarket.”

Photo: Senator Murray Watt is sworn in on June 1, source: Twitter

Senator Watt claimed that the previous government’s agricultural visa proposal had in fact not produced a single worker, as negotiations had to be conducted with different countries before implementation – but the existing Pacific work program has already people ready to take up positions on the farms.

“It has obviously been a successful source of labor for farmers across Australia in recent years, and there are in fact over 50,000 Pacific workers who are selected as ready to come to Australia and So we kind of think that when you have that immediate supply of people available, that would be the smartest thing, is to take advantage of that, so we want to expand that Pacific work program and strengthen it. said, the feedback I’ve received in the role is that it may not be enough to meet all of our needs or the kinds of skills needed, and I’m certainly happy to work with industry, unions and other interested people to see how we can fix the problem because it’s a huge workforce crisis that we inherited, and now it’s my job to help fix it.”

Photo source: Australia Pacific Labor Mobility Scheme Facebook

While automation and robotics are making a small contribution to alleviating the shortage in some sectors of industry, Senator Watt is confident that more mechanization will not translate into the need for fewer jobs in the long run.

“My (dad) was a (sugar) cane cutter in Mackay – that was the early 60s and you’d be flat to find a cane cutter who does it without a machine these days,” he said. he declares. “So it’s nothing new. And last week when I was in Emerald, I went to visit a company there, SwarmFarm, which makes machinery and robotics for things like spraying pesticides. and other things too. And I think automation has a role to play in changing the way we do farming and in a way it can help farmers in times of labor shortages. but, of course, we never want to get to the point where there is no one employed in agriculture. That would be a tragedy for rural Australia. I think it’s to strike a balance and, as I said, I’m really keen to work with the industry on what kind of ideas are out there for what is a real problem.”

For more on Labor Party policy in the Pacific region, click here.

Michael A. Bynum