VICTORIAN farmers have called for the State Government to empower the regions in the state’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic by implementing an Agriculture Workers’ Code and easing meat processor workforce restrictions.
The Victorian Farmers Federation last week said regional Victoria is ideally positioned to help lead the state out of the current economic woes and is asking for state and federal governments to enable the thinking and policy needed to support growth.
VFF president David Jochinke said despite the challenges agriculture and the regions continue to face, regional Victoria has the opportunity to lead the state’s economic recovery as COVID-19 restrictions ease.
“As farmers, we’re still awaiting the Agriculture Workers’ Code to be implemented and have very real concerns of the impact on our livestock industry in the midst of restrictions placed on our meat processing facilities.
“We do; however have a once in a generation opportunity to revive regional Victoria and help lead the state from its economic woes,” he said.
Roadmap for regional meat processors still unclear
Despite numerous questions to Agriculture Minister Jaclyn Symes and the Department of Health and Human Services, the State Government is still yet to outline the criteria and triggers for the easing of workforce restrictions on regional meat processors. This is despite the 14-day rolling daily new COVID-19 case average for regional Victoria falling to 1.6 today and to 34.4 for metropolitan Melbourne.
A DHHS spokesperson told Sheep Central last week that the abattoir and meat processing sector has seen a high incidence of coronavirus cases in Victoria and globally.
“We have put in place measures to ensure the safety of workers, their families and the community.
“The guidelines for meat works in regional Victoria reflect their status as a high risk industry subject to workforce restrictions,” the spokesperson said.
However, neither the spokesperson nor DHHS has been able or willing to outline the likely roadmap for the easing of workforce restrictions. Sheep Central was also told COVID Safe requirements for processors are likely to remain in place until the last step in the government’s roadmap to recovery and that DHHS is working with the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions and the meat processing industry to explore options for high-risk industries as Victoria eases restrictions.
A spokesperson for Ms Symes said six meat processors have been exempted from workforce capacity reductions on animal welfare grounds, but the Minister’s office has been unable to confirm at what point consideration will be given to easing the current workforce restrictions on Victorian regional and metropolitan meat processors, including when no new cases are recorded statewide for 14 consecutive days.
“Of course our health must always remain our top priority and we need to ensure we continue practising COVID-safe measures, but we also need to look forward to the future,” Mr Jochinke said.
The VFF is calling for a change in government thinking and policy to enable the regions to be a vehicle for economic growth and genuine investment in critical infrastructure.
“Regional Victoria is in a much more advanced stage of COVID recovery than Melbourne.
“Now is the opportunity for governments to invest in the regions to help power Victoria’s economic recovery,” Mr Jochinke said.
“There’s an undeniable city and country divide in infrastructure and services such as roads, rail, telecommunications, health and education.
“If can we can get commitment from government to deliver a standard for all Victorians, the liveability of the regions will attract community and economic growth,” he said.
“Our message to the Victorian and Federal governments is the regions can’t wait for Melbourne to catch up.
“The time to entice growth in the regions and help us recover is now,” Mr Jochinke said.
“COVID-19 has shown the resilience of regional Victoria. The upside of getting the regions up and running initially is enormous, not just for agriculture, but for Victoria as a whole.
“The longer we wait to do this, the longer the road we have to economic recovery.”
Targeted funding to attract workers
The Victorian Government last week announced targeted funding to attract seasonal workers to regional Victoria and ensure farmers have the hands-on-deck they need to get produce to plate.
Minister Symes announced a $17 million package to help address seasonal workforce shortages brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and reiterated the call for farmers to register their workforce needs on the Working for Victoria platform to be matched with eager jobseekers.
Ms Symes urged Victorian farmers to look at the funding available and register with Working Victoria – “to connect with workers keen and able to help them get their product to plate”.
The package includes more than $6 million to boost the supply of COVIDSafe accommodation for seasonal workers, including working with councils and local accommodation providers like motels and caravan parks to explore accommodation options for regional seasonal workers.
The government will also employ new seasonal workforce co-ordinators who, along with new engagement officers, will link local industry groups, employers, labour hire agencies, local government and other stakeholders.
The engagement officers will also provide additional support to culturally and linguistically diverse communities, who traditionally make up a significant portion of the seasonal agricultural workforce.
The government said farmers and agribusinesses will be further supported with $10 million from the Agriculture Workforce Plan to extend the business adaptation grants – helping workplaces meet health and safety requirements and adapt to distancing changes imposed by the pandemic, with grants of up to $300,000.
The Victorian Government said it has advocated strongly for the Commonwealth to lead a national approach to support farmers ahead of the harvest and shearing seasons beginning across the country.
The Victorian Government will join other states in helping local employers take part in the Commonwealth’s Seasonal Worker Programme and Pacific Labour Scheme, and will continue talks on what greater role the Commonwealth Government can play in assisting Victorian agribusinesses to find workers.
The Victorian Government said it has led the development of the Agriculture Workers Code with New South Wales, to give certainty to farmers and agricultural workers that border closures will not stand in the way of their vital work.
Jobseekers can register now and be alerted when opportunities in the sector appear on the site. To do so and to find out more about the Agriculture Workforce Plan click here.