Politicians are again being reminded that labour shortages must stay high on the agenda post this weekend's federal election.
Australian Dairy Farmers (ADF) president Rick Gladigau said as in many other sectors in the Australian economy, dairy was experiencing a chronic shortage of labour as a consequence of the full employment rate and the slow opening of international borders post COVID-19.
Mr Gladigau described the situation as "desperate".
"Although exacerbated by COVID-19, this is not a new challenge and while we have made progress in advocating for an improved labour strategy and policy over the past 18 months, labour needs to be a priority for any incoming government," he said.
"In particular we need to see the ALP increase its offering to Australian dairy farmers and the wider dairy industry. In the final days leading up to the election, we remain unclear how an Albanese-led government will assist."
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Mr Gladigau said there were still levers available that would further assist dairy farmers' day-to-day labour challenges.
He backed a call from Seniors Australia to exempt employment income from the age pension means test to boost workforce participation.
"The current means testing for the age pension discourages many older Australians from working," he said.
"Exempting work income from means testing means pensioners can return to work, and help meet critical labour shortages across dairy, and many other industries."
Deloitte Access Economics estimate that a 5 per cent increase in workforce participation from Australians over 55 would result in a $47.9 billion increase to GDP.
"Dairy regions have retirees, many who wish to work; however, are not incentivised to do so due to the means test," Mr Gladigau said.
"With many retirees already residing in dairying regions, some of the current accommodation challenges are mitigated with this proposal.
"It would be another proactive step in overcoming this labour hurdle.
"Dairy would welcome the opportunity to work with Seniors Australia and run a trial using our industry as a test case, as we need workers today."
Mr Gladigau said the government's National Agricultural Workforce Strategy and $30 million implementation commitment in the 2021 budget was a good start to addressing the sectoral challenge, but further investment was needed.
"At least $300 million would enable the establishment of a large-scale workforce capability fund to resolve worker shortages and build capabilities needed for the future," he said.
Mr Gladigau also cited progress in the last 18 months as including the review of ANZSCO (the Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations) and upgrade of occupations and skills on a dairy farm, as well as updates to the Dairy Industry Labour Agreement which makes it easier for farmers to source staff from overseas.
"We have several members who currently have applications lodged, and with the easing of COVID-19 travel restrictions, it is hoped application processing times are prioritised and this option becomes more viable for an increasing number of dairy farmers," he said.
The Agriculture Visa was another significant step forward according to Mr Gladigau, and while it had been designed and was ready for trial, there had been some difficulties commencing this trial, although Vietnam has now signed up its support.
"Ensuring this visa is working efficiently is a top priority for the dairy sector, as we've specific skills shortages in areas such as AI technicians, which international jobseekers could help address," he said.
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Mr Gladigau said despite these wins, ADF would continue to push for further support.
"Our successful launch of the national Pathway for People in Dairy and the Dairy Passport, supported by securing a $715,000 grant from the Victorian government as part of the government's $50 million Agriculture Workforce Plan, demonstrates the value of both our NFF membership, and direct lobbying," he said.
ADF chief executive David Inall said labour shortages were being amplified by increased pressure in the housing market.
Rental prices have surged, and housing prices are growing steadily.
Dairy regions are often sought after for sea or tree-change destinations, meaning housing accessibility is especially constrained for dairy workers.
"To help alleviate these issues, ADF welcomes government investment for building dairy capabilities and increasing housing initiatives for regional areas - especially those that can deliver medium-density options which is the most underserved type of housing for dairy regions," Mr Inall said.
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