A TOOWOOMBA councillor has urged federal agriculture minister Murray Watt to consider welcoming Ukrainian refugees to help address Australia and the Darling Downs’ crippling shortage of farm workers.

Councillor Rebecca Vonhoff raised the idea with the Minister during the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) General Assembly in Canberra last week.

Vonhoff said that prior to Russia’s invasion, Ukraine had one of the biggest agricultural economies in the world and the skills a lot of their displaced people have are a perfect fit for the Darling Downs.

“I said to the Senator, we have severe labour shortages in agriculture – it’s across all spheres, from picking lettuce to harvesting cotton crops or working in feedlots,” Vonhoff said.

“At the same time we’re experiencing that problem, over in Europe we’ve got the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

“Imagine someone who, before the war, was driving harvesters for Ukraine’s immense wheat crops.

“Yes, it is a bit of lateral thinking and I understand that there’s nuance, but there needs to be a conversation had.”

Toowoomba councillors Rebecca Vonhoff, Paul Antonio, Carol Taylor and Melissa Taylor with Ukrainian ambassador Vasyl Myroshnychenko at ALGA in Canberra

The Darling Downs is far from the only region struggling to find workers, with Granite Belt farms, tourism and hospitality businesses on the hunt for seasonal and permanent staff.

Granite Belt Wine and Tourism president Martin Cooper, who also owns winery Ridgemill Estate, said staffing was the biggest issue facing the local industry right now.

“We basically run a permanent ad for cleaning staff which is tricky,” he said.

“We’ve focused very much on residents of Stanthorpe where we can, so all of our picking this year was with a group of retirees who did a great job. 

“We had a couple of grey nomads, second year they’ve come back and they’ve pegged all our nets up for us, so it’s a different approach and you have to be very proactive.”

Pickers celebrate the end of the season at Ridgemill Estate back in April

Peter O’Reilly from the Queensland College of Wine Tourism said prior to covid there were more than 4000 backpacker beds in the Stanthorpe area alone – a huge workforce which remains unfilled.

“They’re not holidays backpackers, they’re working backpackers,” he said.

“They’re earning money while they’re here and they’re working primarily in horticulture, vegetables, berries and also the wine industry.

“Harvesting grapes has been an issue, the vast majority of our crop is hand-picked – that’s been a real problem.

“We’ve also had a real problem in the hospitality and tourism sense in finding labour as well. This is something that’s been a country-wide phenomenon but we’ve noticed it here, without doubt.”

Martin Cooper said while the region’s tourism businesses had never been busier, keeping up with that demand is a huge challenge.

“No one’s complaining, we’re just all buggered,” he said.

North of Toowoomba, workforce shortages are also slamming the brakes on productivity for Crows Nest restaurants and cafes, who’ve experienced a similar tourism boom to Stanthorpe through the pandemic.

Jesse Cole-Smith runs The Curly Carrot restaurant and said finding good chefs at the moment was near-impossible.

“We’re very lucky in a sense, we have a lot of local kids that we shape and mould and we help grow, but having that older, more common-sense people in your kitchen is really important for us to grow,” Cole-Smith said.

“For us to hit that 150-200 people-a-night mark, we need help in the kitchen and there’s just no chefs anywhere.

“There’s no chefs in Crows Nest, there’s no chefs in Toowoomba, or Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Sunny Coast.

“I know different businesses that just recently opened, they were advertising for chefs 6-8 months before they opened because they knew the struggle of finding people that want to work in the industry anymore.”

Jesse Cole-Smith at The Curly Carrot in Crows Nest

Rebecca Vonhoff told the Caller she was hoping her conversation with the federal government would make them think about increasing one-off intakes of refugees, not just because it’s a good thing to do, but because it could help solve issues here in Australia.

“I think we need to think more widely and differently about trying to come up with solutions and not be scared to say something that is a bit different to hear,” Vonhoff said.

Senator Murray Watt said massive workforce shortages aren’t a new problem and unfortunately were “left to fester by the Morrison Government.”

“There’s no single solution to meeting workforce needs, but it begins with training Australians for careers in the industry,” Watt said.

“We committed to invest more in training locals for industries with workforce shortages, after years of cuts from the Morrison Government.

“We recognise that agriculture has had a long-standing need for overseas workers and that’s why we’ll be working with the industry to improve the PALM (Pacific Australia Labour Mobility) scheme to make sure farm businesses can access Pacific workers, particularly to fill seasonal jobs.

“I am open to hearing from all groups, including industry, farm groups, employers and unions, about solutions that will help to address our workforce challenges, and also look forward to coming up with more ideas at the Government’s Jobs and Skills Summit later this year.” 

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