Labour use in Australian agriculture

Summary

Labour is a key input to Australian agriculture, and there is significant interest in understanding the extent to which labour markets are currently meeting the needs of the Australian farm sector. This interest has recently been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in a reduction in the availability of farm workers from overseas and placed restrictions on the movement of Australian farm workers.

ABARES has been surveying farmers about their labour use for several years. Data describing the use of labour on farms and the profile of farm workers has been collected through surveys of broadacre, dairy, vegetable, fruit, grape and nut farms. Farms in scope for these surveys account for 93% of Australia's employing farm businesses.

Results from ABARES labour surveys for 2018–19 are presented in this publication using a data visualisation product. Users can select from a range of state and industry options to observe trends in labour use during 2018–19, and the profile of the agricultural labour force in that year. Monthly data on seasonal labour use at a finer regional scale is displayed through a map.

Key findings

Employment on Australian farms is significant and varies throughout the year

Australian farms employed 322,000 workers on average across 2018–19, including full-time, part-time, casual and contract employees. Total farm employment varied from 354,000 in February to 303,000 in June 2019, reflecting the timing of relatively labour-intensive operations such as planting and harvest. Variation in total employment on farms is driven by changes in the use of casual and contract labour on farms (often known as seasonal workers).

Broadacre farms are the largest employers in Australian agriculture, accounting for an average of 159,000 workers in 2018–19. Fruit grape and nut farms employed around 103,000 workers, vegetable farms employed 36,000 workers and dairy farms employed an average of 24,000 workers over the year.   

Number of workers by type, all industries, 2018–19
Note: all industries refers to fruit, nut, grape, vegetable, broadacre and dairy farms

Casual and contract labour use exhibits significant seasonality and workers from overseas are an important source

Nationally, the total number of casual and contract workers employed on farms ranged from a high of around 150,000 in February 2019 to a low of 100,000 in June 2019. The number of casual and contract workers on farms increased by approximately one third from September to February.

Of the total casual and contract workforce used on farms, 40% to 50% were from overseas in 2018–19 (in addition to those from New Zealand), including people in Australia on working holiday maker (WHM) visas and participants in the seasonal worker program. The total number of these workers ranged from 69,000 in February 2019 to 47,000 in June 2019.

Some industries rely on seasonal and overseas workers much more than others

Farms in particular industries use casual and contract labour quite differently throughout the year. Horticulture farms tend to use relatively large amounts of casual and contract labour at key times of the year and less in other months, while broadacre and dairy farms tend to use this kind of labour more consistently over time. Farms with greater variation in casual and contract labour use tend to rely more heavily on workers from overseas than others.

Casual and contract labour use varies significantly across states

There are significant differences across states in the use of casual and contract labour, and in the seasonal pattern of labour use, reflecting the areas of particular crop types present and the timing of relatively labour-intensive processes. Total casual and contract labour use appears to vary less throughout the year in New South Wales and Queensland than in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania.

Number of casual and contract workers on farms in each month, by state, 2018–19

Casual and contract labour use is regionally concentrated

Reliance on casual and contract labour from overseas is highest in regions with high volumes of horticultural production and a range of seasonal crop types. This includes regions such as south-east Queensland, including the important vegetable producing regions of the Lockyer valley and Wide Bay as well as tropical fruit and strawberry production on the Sunshine Coast. The Sunraysia and Shepparton regions in northern Victoria are another with a range of vegetable crops, wine grapes, almonds, citrus and pome fruit and includes large areas of table grapes — a crop that requires large numbers of pickers and packers for relatively short periods.

Farms employ a range of worker types, depending on their circumstances and conditions in the labour market

Farm workers employed in 2018-19 were mainly Australians, particularly in the broadacre and dairy industries. In the vegetable and fruit and nut industries, around half of all workers employed at peak were Australians. Most workers on farms in the peak month were employed through casual and contract arrangements.

Key caveats and assumptions

These are ABARES best estimates of the use of labour on farms and the profile of farm workers, given the data presently available. The following caveats and assumptions should be noted:

  • For most fruit and nut farms, survey data on the use of casual and contract labour was only available for the ‘peak’ month, and ABARES has drawn on other data and industry knowledge to inform a modelling process that was used to construct the estimates for other months. In contrast, data on monthly labour use for broadacre, dairy and vegetable farms was collected directly in farm surveys.
  • The data presented here are for 2018–19. The use of labour on farms in particular regions and industries (and labour use from month to month) varies between years depending on seasonal and market conditions. As such, the estimates presented here should not be viewed as forecasts of labour use in 2020–21.
  • In constructing these estimates, ABARES has used ABS data on farm numbers and the areas of particular agricultural activities present in each state, and ABARES farm survey data on the use of labour throughout the year.
  • Disaggregating the data into particular industries and states reduces the number of surveyed farms underpinning the estimates, which increases the degree of uncertainty associated with these estimates.
  • These estimates of the total number of casual and contract workers used in each month are not necessarily comparable to estimates of the total number of short term positions available, since workers can potentially have more than one position within a month.
  • For casual and contract employees, estimates are provided for the number of local workers (i.e. those that live in the same district as the farm), non-local Australian and New Zealand workers, and overseas workers. To aid presentation, this disaggregation is not performed for full and part time workers. Nationally, the vast majority of these workers are local.

An explanatory document on the data visualisation is available for download.

Download

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Datasets: Labour use on Australian farms, 2018-19 PDF 8 329 KB

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Previous research

The Demand for farm workers: ABARES farm survey results 2018 report

Dufty N, Martin P, Zhao S – ABARES research report – October 2019

ABARES 2018 surveys provide an-depth profile of labour demand, recruitment difficulties and future challenges farmers face. The surveys covered broadacre, dairy and vegetable industries across all states, together with irrigated cotton and fruit and nut farms in the southern Murray Darling Basin. In aggregate these industries account for 74% of total Australian agriculture sector employment.

 

Snapshot of Australia’s Agricultural Workforce

Binks B, Stenekes N, Kruger H and Kancans R – ABARES Insights 2018

This snapshot provides key information and statistics on Australia’s agricultural workforce. We cover where workers live, what sub-industries and occupations they work in, and the mobility and educational attainment of the workforce.

 

 

Dairy work​​force survey 2015-16

Dufty N, Zhao S, Shafron W and Valle H ABARES research report – July 2018

ABARES survey results show the dairy industry’s labour force needs and challenges differ compared to other agriculture industries.

 

 

What difference does labour choice make to farm productivity and profitability in the Australian horticulture industry? A comparison between seasonal workers and working holiday makers

Zhao S, Binks B, Kruger H, Xia C & Stenekes N – ABARES research report – February 2018

On average seasonal workers are 20 per cent more productive than backpackers, but their non-wage labour costs are 2.3 times higher. Productivity benefits of hiring seasonal workers likely outweigh the higher non-wage labour costs and deliver profitability gains for farmers.

 

 

Labour force survey

Valle H, Millist N and Galeano D ABARES research report – 18 May 2017

Insights into vegetable, horticulture and cotton farmers’ use of labour, recent recruitment experiences and expected future labour requirements.

 

 

Diversity in Australia's agricultural, fishing and forestry industry workforce

20 Feb 2015

A diverse range of people of varying ages, genders and cultural backgrounds work in and contribute significantly to Australian agricultural, fisheries and forestry. These information sheets provide statistics and trends in employment participation and workforce demographics.

 

 

Measuring the efficiency of horticultural labour: A case study on seasonal workers and working holiday makers, Farm Policy Journal

2015

Using payroll data from a horticulture farm in Queensland, this study found that seasonal workers were on average significantly more efficient than working holiday makers.

Last reviewed: 17 September 2020
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