Body to tackle agricultural workforce woes

·3-min read

A group has been set up to bring together the agriculture sector, unions and government in a bid to tackle the labour shortage crisis, but some farmers say the move is just "kicking the can down the road".

Agriculture Minister Murray Watt announced the establishment of the partnership on Friday, which will begin progressing some of the agreements to come out of the jobs and skills summit to ensure the sector gets its "fair share".

Senator Watt said the working group would meet monthly over the next year to discuss the sector's challenges, but stressed work is already under way to address agriculture's labour shortage.

"(This will) make sure that farmers can get the workers that they need and to make sure that agriculture workers are protected and respected in their work."

The minister said the bringing together of groups traditionally considered adversaries had produced "fantastic outcomes".

But some farmers say the announcement doesn't provide any immediate solutions.

Mixed grain and sheep farmer Justin Everitt from Brocklesby in southern NSW is starting to reduce his flock by three-quarters because he can't get enough workers.

He's also been unable to lock in enough workers for harvest which starts in November.

"Just feels like kicking the can down the road. 'We'll set up a group and we'll talk about it'," Mr Everitt told AAP.

"If something comes up then that's fantastic but I won't hold my breath."

National Farmers Federation president Fiona Simson who attended the summit praised the government for the collaborative approach but said more action was needed.

"As farmers we're a bit sick of talking. It's critically important that we start to turn all that talk into tangible action," she said.

However, Ms Simson said some of the summit outcomes would help farmers.

"Increasing skilled migration and simplifying enterprise bargaining will certainly help meet skills gaps, and we commend the government for promising immediate action on these.

"We're also pleased to have reached a tripartite agreement with key unions and government to implement a range of agreed improvements to skills and training, workplace safety, housing, and the PALM Scheme."

Ms Simson said it was still unclear how agriculture would fill tens of thousands of roles in the immediate term.

"We are still left wondering how we will plug the yawning gap in lower-skilled workers."

Ms Simson said an additional 9000 regional places included in the lifting of the permanent skilled migration cap wouldn't meet the needs of the sector.

Across the food supply chain it's estimated there is a shortfall of at least 172,000 workers.

"We're seeing this manifest in higher prices and supply disruptions on supermarket shelves," Ms Simson said.

Chief executive Brent Eastwood from JBS Foods, one of the world's biggest meat companies, attended the summit also congratulated the government on bringing groups together.

"So the summit has been really good in the sense that we're all working together for the future. But our (worker shortage) problems are acute today."

Ms Simson said it wasn't often her sector got together with the unions.

"We have way more in common than we thought, and how much better for us to be standing here together," she said.

Ms Simson said the sector had "waited for a number of years" for the agriculture visa, which Labor had scrapped.

In response to Nationals leader David Littleproud labelling the NFF "cowards" for not calling out the government for scrapping the agriculture visa, Ms Simson said his comments were "incredibly disappointing".

"It's not the collaborative bipartisan nature that we need when we're resolving some of these issues," she said.