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Select Committee on Job Security
Impact of insecure or precarious employment on the economy, wages, social cohesion and workplace rights and conditions

MORRIS, Mr Rod, Industry Skills Adviser for Primary Industries, Rural Jobs and Skills Alliance, Queensland Farmers Federation [by video link]

SAUNDERS, Dr Diana, Project Manager, Rural Jobs and Skills Alliance, Queensland Farmers Federation [by audio link]

CHAIR: I now welcome Dr Saunders and Mr Morris from the Queensland Farmers Federation. Thank you for joining us via video conference.

Mr Morris : I can't see Dr Saunders on screen at this stage.

CHAIR: I can't either. We'll start, and we'll chase her down now, if that's okay with you, Mr Morris.

Mr Morris : I can make it up as I go. It's not a problem at all.

CHAIR: We never do that as senators—not much! Thank you for your time. I note that the QFF has not provided a submission to the inquiry. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses in giving evidence to parliamentary committees has been provided to you as part of your invitation to appear. I now invite you to make an opening statement of around three to four minutes, to allow time for questions. At the conclusion of your remarks, I will invite members of the committee to ask questions.

Mr Morris : Thank you. In Diana's absence—she had prepared a short statement around the organisation; if we can track her down, I can leave her to go through the bulk of the program—I can speak to my role inside the Queensland Farmers Federation. I fill a role as the industry skills adviser. In that role there, I liaise with industry stakeholders and educators to provide sound evidence back to government around training and skills needs in Queensland. I work heavily with the Rural Jobs and Skills Alliance, which is a peak body organisation sitting inside Queensland Farmers Federation. I utilise that group as my key industry reference group for information going back into government, but I do work across other areas as well. I worked with the RJSA in preparing a submission to Mr Azarias's report that he spoke of earlier, so we've had quite a bit to do in that area. Other than that, I would like to leave it to Dr Saunders to speak to what she wanted to speak to, if I may. I'm happy to take questions.

Senator CANAVAN: Thank you, Mr Morris. I'm not sure if you've been listening at all, but we've heard some evidence of fairly shocking mistreatment this morning, and there's no doubt that that does exist. What's been your experience of handling such complaints? How prevalent are they, and how quickly are allegations of mistreatment dealt with in the sector?

Mr Morris : I can only speak from where I can speak from on that. I have been sitting in all day. I did miss a little bit after lunch with everything being delayed, and I had a few other things to do, but I have been listening in. From my experience and the feedback I do undertake, yes, there is existence of some of these issues. It's been interesting talking about this this morning and then going through the process of how we break this down. From my point of view, the way it's broken down is that there is this seasonal workforce or this workforce that's not in full-time employment, and there's also the full-time workforce area. So there is a breakdown inside that area and the utilisation of what they call seasonal workers. It's not uncommon, in the current situation with worker shortage, that these things come up, and not just with the Pacific islanders as such. I also heard them speak before about why locals aren't necessarily doing some of that work. Some of the feedback I can give in that area, from some of the work we've done, is that there are some long-term intergenerational issues around long-term unemployed in certain regions. There are also points that come up around the fact that the locals will not work for some of the employers who do not look after their staff. So there's this pressure, in being an employer, of preference for an employer of choice. That causes issues with people being prepared to work in the industry.

CHAIR: Mr Morris and Senator Canavan, sorry. Dr Saunders is now on the phone. She can do it after your questions, Senator Canavan, but I know she wanted to do a brief opening statement as well, just to help with the questions.

Senator CANAVAN: I'm happy to go to the opening statement.

CHAIR: Over to you, Dr Saunders.

Dr Saunders : I had some issues trying to log into the Webex portal, so I apologise for that. Thank you to the committee for inviting me to present for you today. I'm here on behalf of the Queensland Farmers Federation. You have already talked to my colleague Rod Morris. My role at QFF is as a project manager of the Rural Jobs & Skills Alliance and also as the industry skill adviser for agriculture. That role is supported by the Department of Employment, Small Business and Training in Queensland.

The RJSA developed from the agricultural sector's need to engage more with the education and training sectors and the Queensland government's commitment to create and support jobs across the state. Members of the alliance are agricultural industry representative bodies, supported by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. The Rural Jobs & Skills Alliance's purpose is to address mutual goals for our member organisations that focus on the attraction, development and retention of new entrants and existing workers to underpin the prosperity of Queensland's agricultural sectors now and into the future. We anticipate that, with the world's demand for food expected to surge by 2050 and with higher population growth, there will be an increased demand for jobs at multiple levels across the sector. So the RJSA has engaged in multiple initiatives to address the workforce needs of the industry.

I'd like to mention, among the many initiatives that we have, the Queensland Agriculture Industry Workforce Plan 2022-2026, which is being developed at the moment, in partnership with Jobs Queensland. So it's a Queensland Farmers Federation partnership with Jobs Queensland, in collaboration with the Rural Jobs & Skills Alliance. The document that we are drafting at the moment provides an overview of research and a stakeholder consultation that happened during 2021, which underpinned the planning. It also chose some defining recommendations and actions that create a five-year plan. The actions will assist the agriculture sectors to be productive, innovative and profitable by investing in workforce development.

Another initiative that is worth mentioning and acknowledging is that we acknowledge the great contribution that migrants have made to our industry, so we, together with Growcom and other relevant stakeholders, have established the effective pathways for sustainable migrant employment in agriculture working group to develop and implement strategies to support the training, development and employment of migrants in our industry. The scope of the work of the group is to work with migrants who are already in Australia, looking at the barriers that migrants have to settlement in regional areas.

Our solutions—there are many, and I could go through them in detail—include training for potential employees and employers. In terms of employers, we do work with the farms. That can be a vehicle to lift employment conditions. We're grateful for their confidence and for the support for farms received from the Australian government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. We welcome the support of and also the interest from unions in participating in an improvement in that tool, to work with the industry and lift the employment conditions in our sectors. We also support the inclusion of a dedicated agriculture unit within the Fair Work Ombudsman and a related initiative to ensure that the workers entering the industry are ready to work on farms.

On that, we have partnered with farmers on FarmReady Hub, with support from the Queensland government, for agricultural jobseekers. It is a centralised hub of information providing relevant information about regional Queensland, government training and employment initiatives, as well as creating a link between jobseekers and employers. The website also offers a pre-induction microcredential program that prepares jobseekers to work on farms. This microcredential program has been tested with migrants and also with Australian workers, and is a pre-induction tool that make sure that employees know how to take care of themselves, what the health and safety concerns are and what is working in the industry, and also to be aware of their responsibilities.

CHAIR: Excuse me, Dr Saunders. If it's okay with you, I'll stop you—

Dr Saunders : That was the end of my introduction.

CHAIR: It's so that we can get to some questions as well, because we are on quite a tight time frame. Thank you very much for your evidence. If there is anything additional that you wanted to say, if you feel that we have cut you off, you are very welcome—and we would encourage you—to send anything, including the opening statement, to the secretariat. It will be distributed amongst the committee and the senators, and be part of the Hansard. Now I might go back to Senator Canavan.

Senator CANAVAN: Thanks for that, Dr Saunders. We've covered a bit there about the mistreatment. I want to drill down here, in the little bit of time I've got, to something that has obsessed me a little bit today, and that is this notion of 'portability', as the department calls it—just being able to change your job. My understanding from the evidence today is that under the temporary migration schemes—the Pacific labour scheme, for example—workers can't simply just go and work for someone else who, obviously, would still be in that industry. They seem to have to go through quite a bureaucratic process and, potentially, to prove mistreatment before being given approval to change employers. Has the QFF got a position on this, as such? We just spoke to Mr Azarias, who wrote a report on this, who recommended some more flexibility, and we heard earlier from the department that they were considering more flexibility around portability. It would seem to me that just allowing people to leave bad employers might help weed out the cowboys because in that scenario, presumably, people wouldn't continue to work for labour hire companies and others that mistreat them.

Dr Saunders : Yes. Portability—I'll start and you can collaborate, Rod. I think portability is quite important. That's also because in seasonal work it's good to have that kind of connection with employers—that flexibility of choosing the employer that you want to work with. It's quite interesting. I can think of one case—actually in the pork industry, for example—where there has been a report done looking at the workforce. One of the interesting aspects of that was that being an employer of choice is very important, for Australians and also for international workers, because it allows you to attract more workers and have that reputation where workers actually want to work with you. Being an employer of choice is quite important in any industry but in the example I'm putting here from the pork industry, it was very evident that this person has been able to offer conditions that were really good. They were motivated and taking care of their employees, and because of that they had people from different cohorts coming back to be employed in this organisation. Because now it's a competitive market there's competition between farms, so it actually sets them apart from other ones. The ability for employees to choose who to go to is quite important, I think.

Mr Morris : I would add a couple of things. There are just a couple of things to keep in mind with different cohorts of these visas. One is the access that these different visas have. In Queensland—and I deal directly with the Queensland funding—a lot of those visa holders don't have access to our training system. There are eligibility issues for those people. We set these things up. With the PALM scheme, as it is now, there was a lot of talk early in the COVID pandemic, when we wanted to bring more people in, about doing some pretraining around it. But the current rules don't allow for funding and training and skilling up of these people. The RJSA, as Dr Saunders mentioned, has tried heavily to work to educate employers about different cultures and so forth as well.

That does cause problems when you talk about portability, because we don't necessarily have access to that cohort. The general standard is that you need to be an Australian citizen; an Australian permanent resident, including humanitarian entrants; a temporary resident with the necessary visas and work permits on pathways to permanent residency; or a New Zealand citizen. That's why it's normally written into that. They're some of the problems if we want to try to give some more flexibility—and I totally agree with you—on competition in workforce. I think everyone needs to compete. The agriculture industry is competing for the same workforce as the tourism industry et cetera. So they're some of the things that would be worth investigating further about access to some of these programs to be able to help with portability.

Senator CANAVAN: Thank you.

Dr Saunders : I have just one more point. We are talking about that initiative. The FarmReady card and that pretraining is quite useful in engaging these communities and for them to look at what is working in Australia and where to go. Providing that information helps them make that decision.

Senator CANAVAN: Thank you. You might not be too aware of this, but the previous witness, Mr Azarias, mentioned that Queensland has some regulation of labour hire companies. You might have come across the report he did for the government—18 months or so ago now, I think—on seasonal work and the seasonal workforce. His inquiry recommended that the Queensland licensing for labour hire companies be rolled out nationally. Do you have any experience with that? Does that help at all to regulate some of the labour hire companies that might be engaged in mistreatment of seasonal workers?

Mr Morris : Our experience is only on the outside of that. I haven't had any direct experience of it. My understanding of that is through my engagement with the Queensland Agricultural Workforce Network field offices, and they're highly in favour of regulation of that program and doing that. So it would be a definite benefit.

Dr Saunders : Yes, it's something that we have heard also. We do want to improve the attractiveness of the industry. Our members are very keen on making sure that our industry is attractive and provides secure jobs and that we are competitive and we are employers of choice. That probably would help in the process.

Senator CANAVAN: This is my final question. Some witnesses have disputed whether there really are shortages of labour in some sectors, including agriculture. What's the evidence on the ground from your members on availability of seasonal workers in the agricultural sector from Australians? For example, if we didn't have the Pacific Labour Scheme or the Seasonal Worker Program, would we be able to fill these jobs from Australians?

Dr Saunders : One thing is that our members all have expressed that there are shortages. This is not only horticulture; all the agricultural industries have expressed that there are shortages across all different skills. It is not just seasonal work but also skilled work. It is an ongoing issue. Nurseries are filling a lot of vacancies. For all the industries that are members of ours, we have a meeting every two months where we can discuss these kinds of issues.

CHAIR: Excuse me, Dr Saunders. Sorry, the audio connection is going in and out. If there's something you can do at your end to make that better, that would be helpful.

Dr Saunders : Alright, sorry. I will try and fix it. Go ahead while I do that.

Mr Morris : Across the board—going through this is part of my job—we split it into two groups. Senator, you asked about the border closures and how that worked and how we were affected. In agriculture there has always been a shortage of skilled labour. That was pre-COVID, with the borders open and closed. There is a lot of reliance across that, because there is a lot of competition in that area with the mining industry and other sectors. Once COVID came in and the borders did close and the numbers started to run down with seasonal workers, yes, there were definitely—no dispute—labour shortages. Some of the shortages and issues came about with the closed borders and with the portability of being able to move people around, as well. There was a lot of complexity in how the shortages happened. There is no definite way of saying, 'They were short here, there and everywhere.' The other problem—because Queensland is such a big place; we can talk about Queensland—is being able to get people around just inside Queensland. So that's transport and then there's liveability and access to accommodation in rural centres. All those things added up to shortages and compounded the shortages across this period of time.

CHA IR: You mentioned you may have heard some of the evidence from Mr Azarias, the Chair of the National Agricultural Labour Advisory Committee. You made a very detailed submission to that committee through the Rural Jobs and Skills Alliance. What were some of the key suggestions there about attracting local workers into the agricultural industry that you particularly think are critical for our considerations on providing jobs—secure and regular jobs?

Mr Morris : I'll refer to Dr Azarias's comment on recommendation 13. Something we are starting to expand on to a greater extent out of all this is that we are competing for a similar workforce to everyone else, so there is engagement through schools and branding agriculture as a career. From the evidence we heard this morning, there are a lot of people who would not let their children even go into an agriculture career—they think agricultural careers can be a risk. So we need to drive that area to a greater degree. There are a couple of pilots that are happening out there at the moment in regions for engaging interaction between schools and industry. It's being organised via industry. Government can help manage it, but it's industry driving the uptake or attraction of a workforce.

CHAIR: We all have to be mindful about resources for projects, but one of the things we have to be mindful about is getting projects up and running—in government, but we have that responsibility in opposition as well. If the funding was there for more pilot projects for the training and skilling of migrant workers, and also funding for recommendation 13, do you think that would be a positive thing for growing capacity and productivity as well as opportunities for both migrant workers and also local Australian workers?

Mr Morris : You've got to. They are a cohort that we have to work with. I'm based in Toowoomba. There is a large cohort of people here who are potential workers in the agricultural industry. If we tend to ignore that cohort of people, we're leaving a vast array of people out of the equation that we need to engage with. That's the diversity side of things they're looking at in Queensland. Our workforce diversity is potentially changing, so that's definitely something. Regarding what you were saying around skilling, I'm dealing quite a bit with the aquaculture industry, and that industry is looking less at full qualifications and more at short courses that are enough to get people started and go on into traineeships. Mr Azarias commented on apprenticeships and traineeships, and they're avenues that need to be better investigated. That's where we, as the RJSA, see the better option: engaging people and giving them enough skills to start to undertake work in the industry. People learn best when they're in the industry and learning on the job, and there's plenty of data for that.

Dr Saunders : In our consultation on the workforce plan, we thought that part of the workforce structure and diversity training is working with schools, as Rod was saying, having the connections and engagement programs with the schools, and particularly having work placement programs that use the opportunity for young generations or all people that want to enter the industry to be placed in the industry and learn as they go. It's a very attractive proposition for the industry; they want to make their career in agriculture, and we want to resource that properly. That means working with schools and providing apprenticeships and career pathways like work placements, internships, partnerships and traineeships. That could help the industry.

In terms of migrant work—the work with the migrants hubs—in real life our working group has come up with a few suggestions. The group looked at things that you have looked into, like making sure that there is infrastructure, that the social connections are there, that the pastoral care is there and looking at the other components within the placement of migrants that we have to be aware of. These are things like their language, literacy, capacity, giving pastoral care and giving cultural training to employers and employees to make sure that the communication is open and everybody knows or understands each other better.

CHAIR: Thank you for that. We heard from the Australian meat industry employees union, which spoke about how in decades past workers would enter the industry in lower skilled jobs and, in time, would get experience and training to work their way into more skilled positions. They also said that, because many of these lesser skilled roles are now reserved for temporary migrants, there isn't a pipeline of workers moving into the more skilled roles anymore. Is that the sort of problem we need to fix, or how do we do it?

Dr Saunders : I believe that, as we mentioned before, having that career pathway is important. I agree that we need that creative connection. The thing is that, because the industry is going through a transition and is changing and evolving, the roles that are created are different skilled jobs that kids can actually get into. We can then get them into more of those roles and create a pathway where they will perform in the roles that we need in future. We need to look at how we create these roles and skill them up within the workplace to perform roles that are long term and that are sustainable. We need to look at how to make sure that there are skilled jobs that we actually want them to take.

CHAIR: I picked up quite a bit of that, Dr Saunders; it's just that there's a bit of a problem with the phone connection. What do you think the government could do to help Aussie farmers adopt new technologies and remain internationally competitive? How important is that imperative?

Mr Morris : We have talked a fair bit in this area about trying to educate Australian farmers to be more productive and so forth. There are a lot of barriers to managing that, and one of key ones we have to keep in mind is the amount of compliance and so forth they're doing; they're busy people. There's an information overload, so we feel we need to work through influencers—industry advisers, government officers, field officers and so forth—by educating those people in graduate programs to start to help farmers and advise farmers, rather than trying to directly work with farmers. The feeling is the better way to spend money is on that because, for a lot of farmers, if it's free or someone else is paying for it, they may show up. But they're generally very busy people and don't always pick that stuff u That's the feeling: to work through other avenues to upskill farmers.

Dr Saunders : We have done some training—you're right—embracing digital technology workshops with our farmers. It was making them aware of the potential of technology because the adoption of technology also depends on how much you're willing to take because you understand the technology. The skills and understanding more than anything for the farmers of how they can implement this, who they have to go to to get that advice and what aspects they need to be aware of to implement the technologies. That links to more business planning and improved business planning capability so that they think: 'In the next five years where do I want to go? What can I do? How is technology helping me achieve those goals?' It's about getting that system of doing more business planning, along with workforce planning, so that they know where they are going. Then it's about what kind of skills, where do I get that pool of workers that I need, how do skill them and how am I going to go about getting the right skills and the right people?

CHAIR: Mr Morris, you said there were a couple of examples of community engagement, particularly with schools. You broadly mentioned a couple of projects underway involving students directly in the industry. If those projects are looking successful or if those projects are successful what do you think's imperative to try to turbocharge those opportunities and replicate that elsewhere? The good thing about pilots is that you learn lessons from them. The dangerous thing about pilots is that you learn lessons from them but you forget them because it takes years to actually implement.

Dr Saunders : Can I just talk about a program and then Rod can talk about all the other ones? We have a graduate program which you assess. You can find information about it on our website. It's a graduate program that places graduates, most of whom don't have an agriculture background, into placements in agribusiness. That's more agronomy services and extension providers. They are placed, mentored and skilled within 15 months of placement. That has worked amazingly. We give them skill sets, train them up and upskill them in agriculture, and then we pair them with mentors. We do a follow-up with them. They are very employable at the end. We've already had 32 of them go through the program, and they are all super employable. Everybody wants them. Everybody calls me asking how to get one of them. That could be replicated in other regions. This is a brief project that has been quite successful but could be replicated for other regions. It could be replicated for other roles in the industry. It's a program that has a lot of potential to be adopted in terms of the method that we are using to upskill people.

Mr Morris : The programs I'm speaking are with the Queensland Agriculture Workforce Network. It operates as a network that I work with. Two of the programs are working with those people so that it can expand through that network. The other one I'm working with is TAFE Queensland as an instigator. As you say, you do these pilots and then if whoever instigates that disappears these things disappear with them. We don't want that to happen. With the ag colleges closing here we've got to create that other link to a career in agriculture. That's what these things are. Of the two that we're working on, one's out at Emerald and the other one's at Mackay. They've been modelled on a program called Hay Inc—Hay as in the feed that cattle eat—which is based in New South Wales. It's based on that program. If anyone wants to Google that, that's what we're looking at as an engagement program. Unlike what Dr Azarias was saying, we're actually joining employers to a link with students so they're actually looking at each other. It's actually potential employers teaching potential employees and engaging that way through experiences in a farm situation. We're finding that the best way to spend money is to link them to jobs that already exist. Don't just say, 'We're going to train you, and then you're going to look for a job.' Try to work the pattern the other way. Have farmers compete for these people, by saying: 'We have jobs. Come and do this training and get started; then you have a job to go to.' If you create those links, we won't have people wandering around with a qualification who don't necessarily know where to go and get a job.

CHAIR: This is my final question. Do we currently have an accurate picture of the Australian agricultural workforce, or do we need to improve how we collect the data?

Dr Saunders : We need to improve how we collect the data, yes. Our submission to the national strategy said that. There is some effort at the moment being put into trying to improve the ANZSCO codes. That could potentially help, but there is also a lot of misinformation about how many temporary employers we actually have. That's not captured very well. The role of women in agriculture is not captured well enough. There is still data that is missing, and it would be good to improve the way that we actually capture the labour force data for agriculture.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for that. I very much appreciate the time that both of you have taken to address the committee and answer questions. It will definitely help us in our deliberations for our committee report. We're delivering that next week. If you have taken any questions on notice, please provide responses to the secretariat by midday on 7 February 2022.