Home » End of ‘go-to’ harvest trail farm labour program a big loss, farmers say

End of ‘go-to’ harvest trail farm labour program a big loss, farmers say

Backpackers fear there will be a rise in exploitation on Australian farms after the federal government axed a 26-year-old jobs program with little warning.

In its budget last month, the government announced the end of the Harvest Trail Services (HTS) and Harvest Trail Information Service (HTIS) on June 30, saving $47.3 million over the next five years.

The free services connected farmers with temporary working visa holders (backpackers) and Australian jobseekers during busy harvest periods on the “harvest trail”, which comprises thousands of fruit, vegetable, grain and wine grape farms throughout every state and territory.

As part of the services, contractors conducted background checks on both parties.

Spanish backpacking couple David Garrote and Melanie Aragon, who have been working on a Queensland fruit farm, said losing the services would push working holiday makers towards less regulated methods like general job websites or social media.

“Backpackers will be more desperate because it’s going to be much harder for them to find a job, so they will be put at risk of being caught in a scam or who knows — something worse,” Mr Garrote said.

“You might just contact any farmer, and maybe they are not following the regulations. Maybe they could be abusive in that sense,” Mr Garrote said.

“Maybe they don’t adhere to the regulations, they might not pay you exactly what’s right, they might not pay you the superannuation.

“If the farmer was found [via HTS], all these things would be done right.”

On-farm exploitation has been a major concern for workers, government, the public and many farmers, with a Fair Work harvest trail inquiry recovering more than $1 million in wages for 2,500 workers in 2018.

Farmers face spending more time, money on recruitment

The Spaniards have been picking apples, pears and berries at the McMahon family’s farm in Stanthorpe.

David McMahon said they had used Harvest Trail Services since its inception in 1998, and the cuts would impact workers and farmers.

Stanthorpe fruit grower David McMahon says the closure of the harvest trail services is a big loss.(ABC Rural: Brandon Long)

“These labour providers essentially give a background on both the employees coming in and they can give the employee some confidence in the employer they’re going to,” David McMahon said.

“To wipe this altogether is a big loss for us, and I’m sure many other people in the industry.”

The McMahons’ workforce during the peak season from December to May comprises four family members, a permanent Australian worker, and about 22 backpackers.

For them, the change means a whole new set of challenges for next season.

“We’re at a very fine line on price point for our production,” Mr McMahon said.

“There is a real cost in having to spend time and money interviewing and onboarding — it could be in the scale of putting on an HR department.”

Contractors blindsided by cuts

The cuts caught the service providers by surprise, with all four confirming there was no consultation.