This topic will be discussed as part of our online bonfire on October 06 at 7:30pm, “Seasonal and Contract Labour: It Works Both Ways” with Aimee McCutcheon, Statewide Seasonal Workforce Coordinator, Ag Vic.
A bumper avocado harvest is underway for growers in the Riverland and Sunraysia districts. But while the climatic conditions have been just right, a lack of pickers on the ground is causing other kinds of stress.
“There’s been a lot of excitement in the lead up to harvest,” Richard*, an avocado grower near Mildura, said.
“The quality level of the fruit is high and there’s just a lot around,” he said.
There’s expected to be a glut of avocados this season, which will mean the price growers receive is likely to drop. But that’s not the biggest concern for Richard.
COVID-19 has meant the usual backpacker workforce that the horticulture and other agricultural industries rely on, just isn’t available.
“We struggled last year when we didn’t have the usual flow of backpackers looking for work,” Richard said.
Last season, Richard and his family often worked from sunup to sundown picking fruit along his small team of harvest employees.
“It was chaotic. We were so busy picking ourselves that didn’t have time to really organise our workforce,” Richard said.
This has been a common story for growers since the pandemic, with some farmers unable to harvest their crops in time. In February this year, The National Farmers’ Federation’s lost crop register topped more than $45 million, due to the seasonal worker shortage.
But the cost has been more than just financial, for both growers and their employees. There are several work-related mental health risk factors identified by WorkSafe, including high job demands, poor support, organisational change and remote work.
“Our harvest lasts for months and from a mental health perspective, you just can’t operate on such high stress levels for that period of time. We were also constantly worried about losing our crop,” Richard said.
This time around, Richard is more prepared. He arranged for workers from the Pacific Islands to come in through the Commonwealth’s Seasonal Worker Program. While this was an extra expense, due to the costs of travel and quarantine, he says it’s worth it.
“There are extra demands on us as employers, in terms of all the rules and regulations and organising accommodation. We also need to be mindful of cultural differences, training and making sure there is good communication. This prevents excess stress on our workers and relieves both their, and our, anxiety regarding expectations at work.”
But Richard said pre-planning allowed him enough time to overcome these challenges. He even enlisted the help of one his harvest workers from last season, Shelley*, a British backpacker who decided to stay in Australia throughout the pandemic.
“I’ve been able to help in the training process and give staff directions if they’re unsure what to do”, Shelley said.
20-year-old Shelley said last season there was a lot of confusion on the ground, with the sheer workload there was often no one to go to for support.
“I was expecting to be travelling the country right now, but on the plus side I’ve been able to further my career in the Sunraysia disctrict, taking on added responsibility, which I’m really enjoying.”
For Richard, having an organisational plan has made harvest a lot easier.
“We still wish we had more staff, but we’re using their skills in the best way we can and I’m confident we’ll be able to get the fruit off the trees in time.”
Whether you have been able to bring on a seasonal workforce prior to this harvest or not, below are some ways to mental health risk factors during harvest:
For farm owners/managers:
- Have an organisational work plan (who is doing what, when) with an efficient onboarding process for new staff.
- Encourage a feeling of connection to the local community for seasonal workers, especially if they are migrants.
- Manage the workload of staff to allow enough time for relaxation and recreation.
- Ensure good communication (do staff know who to call and what to do? Is there a process for employees to raise questions or complaints?)
- Recognise staff for their hard work and achievements.
When it comes to running the family farm, investing in mental health initiatives is not only good for your family and staff, but it’s good for business too. The NCFH is supporting farmers just like you to manage and respond to work-related risks that impact on workplace mental health – these are factors in your work that can affect an employee’s mental health and include high job demands, low job control, low role clarity and more. Managing these factors, means decreasing the risk of work-related stress, which can prevent physical injury, mental injury or even both at the same time. Find out more about being mentally safe on the farm at www.farmerhealth.org.au/campfire.
This blog is part of the Primary Producer Knowledge Network led by the National Centre for Farmer Health to promote mentally healthy workplaces. Campfire, part of The Primary Producer Knowledge Network, is funded by the Victorian State Governments WorkSafe WorkWell Mental Health Improvement Fund.
Join the team for the online bonfire session, “Seasonal and Contract Labour: It Works Both Ways” on October 06 at 7:30pm to hear more from Aimee McCutcheon about her recommendations and strategies for a mentally healthy workplace, both during harvest and the entire year.
*Primary producers featuring in this blog are fictional, but based on research interviews with farmers, and developed with the assistance of the National Centre for Farmer Health