Treasurer unveils plan to get Aussies onto Bundy farms
AS A warm springtime sun shone across the fields of the second biggest strawberry farm in Australia, the state's Treasurer Cameron Dick pledged to bring a sweetener to local growers who are struggling to find workers amid Covid-19 border closures.
It's an unprecedented situation. SSS Strawberries employs hundreds of workers and, like many farms in the region, the berry giant is desperate for labour.
As part of the Wide Bay Regional Recovery Action Plan, the State Government has allocated $1.1 million to a pilot scheme to encourage workers to dust off their boots and make the trip to Bundy.
Payments of up to $1500 will be offered to those moving to the region for farm work.
The government wants them to come straight away and is also launching a campaign dubbed PickQld, where seasonal workers, displaced Queensland workers and working holiday-makers will be directed to employment opportunities in the region.
"There'll be grants up to $1500 to employees to come and work straight away in this great food bowl," Mr Dick said today.
The treasurer said it was hoped the program will attract up to 500 workers for a start and said the focus on attracting job seekers from across Queensland did not detract from the ability of locals to seek out local employment on farms.
"There are great jobs available across the length and breadth of Queensland, but particularly in regional and rural parts of Australia," he said.
Mr Dick said the government had also provided various forms of tax relief and small business loans and grants to assist regional communities.
"We're trying to incentivise the workforce now, to attract workers here from wherever they want to come but in particular in local people want to work of course we encourage them to come and be part of our mighty industries in Queensland agriculture," he said.
It is not immediately clear where incoming workers would dwell, however Mr Dick said he believed motels and other temporary accommodation in Bundaberg had increased in recent years.
"We do know that in the Bundaberg region that we've had a very significant increase in accommodation, the motels and other accommodation places here in the Wide Bay and Bundaberg has increased 30 per cent over the same time last year...," he said.
Motels in the region can charge from $700 to more than $1000 per week for accommodation, while the rental vacancy rate sits at just one per cent.
Because most overseas backpackers reside in share houses or dorm-style accommodation, the Treasurer was questioned on whether Bundaberg could sustain an influx of 500 workers if they didn't stay in the same accommodation usually provided for overseas workers.
"We're not concerned about that at the moment," he said.
"I think we've got sufficient capacity in the community, but we'll of course continue to monitor that and we will work with councils and with stakeholder groups to ensure that they're giving us the information we need so we can help respond to any problems or demand issues that arise over time."
Mr Dick said finding long-term solutions for a shortage of overseas workers was a matter for the Federal Government, but said border control measures had also been what had kept Queensland safe.
"We've been able to safeguard the health of Queenslanders and that's allowed farms like this - the second biggest strawberry farm in Australia - to continue to grow, to produce, to pick, to pack and to sell and that's so important to keep businesses going," he said.
"You can't reopen your economy unless you safeguard the health of your people.
"We're seeing a second wave of cases across Europe at the moment and we want to avoid that at all costs."
Rachel Mackenzie from Berries Australia applauded the move to bring more workers to the region, saying a shortage of labour had been a major concern in the wake of Covid-19.
"Initiatives like this give confidence to our growers and our members across Queensland that our government is listening and looking to put in place some practical solutions and I must say that we commend the work of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, throughout this period they have been incredibly consultative and keen to hear from industry and we'd like to say thank you very much for listening to us and putting forward practical incentives that will actually help people in our sector," she said.
One million for facility at the Port of Bundaberg
Mr Dick also announced an extra $1 million towards a common user facility at the port.
"This is an important port for our region and that will be a common user facility that we will be able to support as a trial to get more product through the port, to allow more product to get into the port and get our into markets around Queensland and around Australia and around the world," he said.
"We've been listening to the community about the economic measures they need to be able to ensure we can support jobs."