Not so Essential After All

Essential Services

WA Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan has confirmed the State’s farming workforce will be exempt from the new border measures enforced yesterday to combat coronavirus.

Conceding there was “a long way to go in this crisis”, Ms MacTiernan said agricultural workers would not be impeded by the strict border measures implemented yesterday.

“People who are required to travel to WA to work in agriculture or primary industries are exempt from the self-isolation requirement, as they perform an essential service for our State,”   The Countryman – 25 March 2020

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“As far as the Commonwealth is concerned, food production and supply is an essential service.

“That means State-imposed border shutdowns will not affect agricultural supply chains.

“Maintaining food production, access to workers, agricultural supply lines, transportation and logistics is absolutely critical and will not be affected by any of the measures aimed at curbing the virus’s spread.”   David Littleproud – 25 March 2020
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Mark McGowan says WA’s hard border with the rest of the nation will be up for “as long as it takes” amid news phase five of WA’s COVID-19 restrictions will be delayed until August 1.

He said WA was a sovereign state of 2.6 million people which powered the nation and would bring the border down when it was the right time.

“Today it would be fair to say WA is not giving in to requests for us to bring down the border.”

“There will be some exemptions for extreme hardships,” Mark McGowan – July 10 2020

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Four months ago, they told us that agriculture was an essential service, farmers, farm workers and ag service personal could freely travel between state regions and across state borders with the help of the Covid Safe App. 

Political common sense was applied with rules around self-isolation and social distancing, from a farmer’s perspective it was a workable approach during the pandemic to keep our farms functioning.

But something happened between March and July and somehow food production seems to no longer be an essential service and as a result no longer can we bring in the workers we need to get the harvest off.

Maybe our politicians have short memories or have heavily stocked larders, but the empty supermarket shelves seem to be a distant memory for many of them.

With the announcement of the new border closure rules no Minister seems to be brave enough to stand up and explain what has changed and why – instead its now near impossible to bring in essential labour to support what they once claimed was an essential service.

Mind you digging up iron ore to sell to the Chinese remains an essential service, so while the Premier might demand that the mining industry employ only WA workers rather than their 6000 Fly In Fly Out Eastern Staters, he seems for the moment happy enough to continue to provide an exemption to the big end of town, just not to family famers.

It seems from the change of policy announced by the Premier on July 10 he and his Ministers have clearly failed to read the states pandemic plan which included scenarios which offered exemptions for essential  workers to keep WA safe and working during a biosecurity crisis.

From day one the State Government should have made it clear to the community that in a pandemic, as highly contagious as this one,  border closures were on the cards and they could remain in place for months, if not years.

Particularly if the community continued to demand that the government keep the virus out of WA whatever the cost.

In turn they should not have told farmers that they provided an essential service but instead made it clear that access to skilled labour might become an issue and they would need to plan for it, or negotiate special exemptions for certain categories of workers, similar to what they have offered the mining sector.

As it stands farmers have been misled and now there is a real issue around seasonal labour not just for horticulture, but also for highly skilled jobs like shearing and header driving. 

On average around 500 overseas workers are needed each year to take up these positions.  But according to the most recent edicts from the State Government exemptions are not being given out for incoming workers.

Worse we are hearing stories of even retired farmers and farmer’s sons being stranded over East and being told they cannot come back into the state to manage their properties. Adding insult to injury there is no appeal mechanism in place once knocked back.

For some bizarre reason, the state government has contracted out responsibility for allowing exemptions to the unelected Commissioner for Police, who would have no idea how farmers rely on intergenerational family workers to keep the farm operating year round. 

The Commissioner is unlikely to be concerned about a farmer locked out of the state who has 5000 sheep in a water deficient shire which need water and feed carted daily.

Neither would he be concerned that the 300 or so shearers and shed hands that come to WA from New Zealand have to undergo a double mandatory quarantine at their own expense, first when they land over East, then again in Perth. 

Mind you, I’m not sure why anyone would want to be stuck in a hotel in Melbourne for two weeks before coming to Perth with the level of COVID in that city and their governments track record of running quarantine hotels.

Would it not be smarter to route people via Brisbane off one plane and on via the next direct flight through to Perth with no double quarantine.

If we don’t get exemptions for our shearers who are facing an outlay of up to $6000 for hotel costs in addition to not working for 4 weeks, then we could well run into animal welfare issues as we head into shearing and crutching of the state’s  10 million sheep.

In addition, farmers requiring header drivers or machinery dealers needing specialist mechanics will be reliving the madness of the mining boom days when the local labour supply dried up. 

For some reason, the State and Federal Governments original enthusiasm for promoting agriculture as an essential service seems to have evaporated.

No doubt the government is now planning on the unemployed café workers moving to Corrigin to drive combine harvesters while serving staff at restaurants will become shearers and shed hands.

Unfortunately for the state government the recent announcement of $57 million for the training sector to retrain people who have lost their jobs because of COVID is unlikely to create the skilled farm workers we need.

In fact it’s hard to find not just the skills we require to work safely on farm, it’s hard to find people who actually want to work on farm without offering vast amounts of money, like the mining industry does.

Something else for the responsible Minister’s to note, not one dollar has been offered to Safe Farms WA to help farmers ensure these new unskilled machinery operators and shed hands will go home safely every night. 

No doubt the state government is expecting their new Industrial Manslaughter laws to be the magic that will overnight end farm accidents.  Just as a few short training courses will solve the ag sectors labour shortage.

This state government needs to get real about the ag sectors labour shortage and tell the Commissioner for Police to back off and come

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