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Without backpackers and migrants who will work in agribusiness post-COVID?

With the most immediate and direct workforce impacts from COVID-19 having passed (including addressing and creating appropriate working environments, maintaining productivity at manufacturing sites with social distancing measures in pace, etc.), enterprises are starting to look towards re-establishing a ‘new normal’.

However, the reliance of some industries upon visa holders is still creating uncertainty. Access to unskilled, temporary and seasonal labour remains a key concern, particularly in horticulture and meat processing for example – where the transient on-demand workforce still creates health risks and outbreaks have already occurred. The concessions government has made to-date (including the Temporary Event subclass visa) have facilitated the immediate extension of most existing, and soon-to-expire, visa-holders in-country (where necessary), however these concessions don’t secure new labour sources or provide security of ongoing labour. While international travel is unlikely to recommence in the foreseeable future, the lack of incoming working-holiday makers, seasonal workers and Pacific Labour Scheme visa holders will start to impact business costs as other, typically more expensive, local labour is required.

ABF media

On a more opportunistic note, the pandemic has created a new (possibly temporary) labour source with a number of local Australians now unemployed and on JobSeeker support payments. In other industries, we have already seen constructive and collaborative responses to this scenario; for example airlines have secured short-term positions for airside staff with over-worked financial institutions or with supermarkets to undertake home delivery, product packaging and shelf-stacking while unprecedented demand for groceries remains high. The food and agribusiness sector has an opportunity to partner with both the public and private sector to replace their typical visa-holding workforce with this new supply of local labour – ultimately, this may address other visa concerns in the longer-term too, such as the transient nature of workers and high costs.

Finally, there is a distinct opportunity for various sectors to further investigate the ability to increase technology, automation and the use of robots in the workplace to reduce the need for human-to-human interaction while ensuring continued supply and in particular, reducing the labour required for various low-skilled, repetitive tasks. These technologies will need to be developed in collaboration with the various sectors to ensure they are fit for purpose and cost effective.

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