Demand for farm workers: ABARES farm surveys 2018

Authors: Niki Dufty, Peter Martin and Shiji Zhao

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.

ABARES surveyed over 2400 farms in 2018. Surveys covered broadacre, dairy and vegetable and in the southern MDB irrigated cotton and fruit and nut farms. 74% of total Australian agriculture sector employment represented

Key findings

Differences between agricultural industries, farm size and location shape the demand for labour, workforce make-up and recruitment experiences of farms.

Horticulture farms use large numbers of low-skilled workers from overseas

Australians dominate the workforce, with overseas workers and those with unknown backgrounds more common on horticultural farms.    Shows average number of workers sourced from: family, locals, Australian or NZ, visa holder and unknown; on vegetable, fruit & nut, cotton, dairy and broadacre farms. Dairy, cotton and broadacre farms predominantly sourced locals and family workers. Vegetable and fruit & nut predominantly sourced visa holders, family and local workers. Vegetable and fruit & nut farms sourced around 10% of workers from unknown backgrounds.   Most workers are Australians, living nearby highlighting the importance of local labour. Dependence on overseas workers exposes farms to visa changes.  Contact labour with an unknown background puts farmers at risk of using undocumented workers.
Note: Vegetable farm results reported for 2016–17. Irrigated fruit and nut farm results are based on farms surveyed in the southern Murray–Darling Basin for 2016–17.

Family and other Australian workers make up the majority of the agricultural workforce. The dependence on workers living nearby highlights the importance of a pool of local workers to agricultural industries and may reflect limited mobility in the Australian agricultural workforce.

Horticultural farms reported the most use of workers on a visa to help meet seasonal needs. The dependence on overseas workers in these industries exposes farms to changes in visa arrangements.

Shows proportion of workers hired in permanent, casual and contract labour roles by vegetable, fruit & nut, cotton, dairy and broadacre farms. Vegetable and fruit & nut farms hired more casual and contract workers.
Note: Vegetable farm results reported for 2016–17. Irrigated fruit and nut farm results are based on farms surveyed in the southern Murray–Darling Basin for 2016–17.

The use of contract workers by horticultural farms is widespread. Around 10% of horticulture workers were contract labour with an unknown background. Although a minority of farmers we surveyed didn’t know the background of some of their workers, it is possible someone else in their farm business would have known. Not knowing the background of contract labour puts farmers at risk of using undocumented workers from unscrupulous labour hire companies.

Rates of recruitment were low and few horticulture farms had difficulty

low rates of recruitment in 2017-18 and few horticulture farms had difficulty. Shows proportion of businesses that are recruiting for vegetable, fruit and nut, dairy and broadacre farms in 2017–18, and economy-wide in 2018.    44% of vegetable farms recruited in 2017–18, followed by 38% of fruit and nut farms, 18% of dairy farms and 9% of broadacre farms. 71% of economy-wide businesses recruited in 2017–18.  Shows proportion of farms with recruitment difficulties. More broadacre (40%) and dairy (48%) farmers reported difficulty recruiting, similar to the proportion of businesses across the economy (44%) in 2018. Fewer vegetable farms (18%) and fruit and nut farms (14%) who recruited reported a difficulty.
Note: Vegetable farm results reported for 2016–17. Irrigated fruit and nut farm results are based on farms surveyed in the southern Murray–Darling Basin for 2016–17.

Rates of recruitment were relatively low for agriculture compared to the rest of the economy. Low rates in part reflect the dominance of family labour reducing the need to recruit.

The survey found some farmers reporting recruitment difficulties in each industry. Few horticulture farms had difficulty recruiting, but a higher proportion of dairy and broadacre farms had difficulties. For horticulture farmers in particular, the low skilled nature of the work, the use of contract labour and access to backpackers appears to reduce recruitment difficulties faced.

higher skilled vacancies were more difficult to fill

Farms had more difficulty recruiting higher skilled positions. This issue is not unique to agriculture and highlights the importance of access to agricultural training and the need to offer competitive wages and conditions.

Shows proportion of farms with recruitment difficulty.  Farms with 40km of a major city reported the most difficulty (49%). Farms with 40km of a large town reported the least difficulty (6%), followed by those within 40km of a medium town (25%), those within 40km of a small town (34%) and those more than 40km from a small town (47%). Farms near cities may face greater competition from other industries and cant offer work qualifying backpackers for a visa extension. Farms located further from large population centres have smaller pools of local labour to recruit from.

Farmers further from large population centres generally had more difficulty recruiting, except for vegetable farmers located near cities—where backpackers have less incentives to work and farms may face greater competition for workers from other industries. Any changes to the regional eligibility criteria for backpacker (working holiday maker) visas would likely change the areas backpackers seek to work.  

Future labour needs and challenges may change as farm sizes grow

Large farms employ more workers, are less reliant on family and have more workers with technical skills. This increases their exposure to changes in the labour market—such as from competition from other industries or migration.

large farms employ more workers exposing them to changes in the broader labour market. Table compares small vegetable farms with a farm turnover of less than $500,000 and large vegetable farms with a turnover of greater than $5million. Large farms employ more workers, have a smaller proportion of family and permanent staff and were more likely to recruit. Large farmer reported attracting workers was their major concern in the future while small farms reported farm profit.

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Last reviewed: 4 November 2019
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