The Prime Minister’s suggestion that more unemployed Australians should consider farm work has been described as “kicking poor people”, as the nation’s fruit picker shortage continues.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a stern warning to Australians receiving the JobSeeker payment on Tuesday, telling them that they can’t reasonably refuse an offer of work.
That includes jobs in horticulture and fruit-picking, he told the AFR Business Summit.
“Despite targeted measures to incentivise Australian JobSeeker recipients to relocate to where the jobs are – $6,000 to move there and take those jobs – unemployed Australians are simply and regrettably not filling these jobs,” he said.
He said there are 54,000 jobs in regional Australia and that he hears stories “every day” of employers unable to fill those positions.
These jobs range from entry-level fruit picking roles to high-skilled roles for engineers, lawyers and doctors, the Regional Australian Institute revealed in October last year.
COVID-19 has also seen the number of horticulture workers fall by 22,000, Morrison noted, as seasonal workers and backpackers have been locked out of Australia, according to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARES).
“The knock on effect of critical skills shortages also forces up prices for consumers, increasing the cost of living for Australians in our cities. That’s how it impacts Australians at home right now,” Morrison said.
“If we can’t get the workers in our regional areas, then the price of your groceries goes up.”
ABARES data has shown the price of summer fruit and vegetables will soar as much as 29 per cent this year due to reduced labour supply.
Morrison said the Government’s response has been to “strengthen the mutual obligation requirements” for JobSeeker recipients.
The Government recently introduced an employer hotline dubbed “DobSeeker” through which employers could report JobSeeker recipients who refused work.
The Government said JobSeekers reported through the line would be investigated, and if they were not found to have a reasonable reason to refuse the work, could have their payments suspended.
Speaking this week, Morrison described the new requirements, in tandem with the $3.57 increase to the payment, as a “fair exchange”.
“If there is a job available, and you are able to do that job, then it is reasonable for taxpayers to expect that you will take it up, rather than continue to receive benefits. And if you don’t, then payment should be withdrawn,” Morrison said.
Data shows unemployed Australians are taking up farm work
However, the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU) has described Morrison’s comments as inaccurate and "kicking poor people".
“This is not a problem of unemployed people turning down work. People are in poverty, and that is the number one motivation for looking for work,” AUWU spokesperson Kristin O’Connell told Yahoo Finance.
“We hear constantly from our members in the region that they are desperate for work and there is not any work available.”
Morrison described farmers’ experiences of being unable to fill vacancies as “beyond anecdotal”.
However, data from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) has revealed that Australian JobSeeker recipients are taking up the farm work in droves.
Some 10,500 JobSeeker recipients have taken up work on farms in the six months to February, data from the DESE data showed.
An additional 3,500 applied for jobs on farms but were unsuccessful.
The DESE data also showed Government-contracted job providers offered 17,000 jobs to unemployed Australians over the same period, with more than half the jobs being accepted.
The latest job vacancy data from the National Skills Commision and the Regional Australia Institute also shows that while there are tens of thousands of regional jobs, the number of entry-level roles is smaller.
There were 1,116 farm, forestry and gardening jobs available in January this year, 163 farmer and farm manager jobs and 1,232 skilled animal and horticulture jobs.
O’Connell said support for workers to relocate also needs to be strengthened, noting that workers planning to relocate need to spend the money before they are reimbursed.
She said it’s unlikely many long-term JobSeeker recipients will have the means to pay to relocate and await reimbursement.
The AUWU hears both positive and negative stories of members’ experiences in the regions once they have taken up the work.
“We need to see the Government to support people to learn the skills if they do want to do farm labour and aren’t able to do that yet,” O’Connell said.
“If there are jobs that people aren’t taking, or that are going to and then leaving quickly, then the Government should be investigating the working conditions on those farms.”