Public servants will roll up their sleeves to join short-staffed farmers in fields and paddocks as border closures keep seasonal workers away for the upcoming harvest.
The Department of Regional NSW has harnessed the labour of its own 4500-strong workforce to access five days’ special leave to assist farmers short of hands.
The staff can volunteer to help with any harvest in the state and the department will pay their standard leave rate.
But some experts have raised concerns about the short time staff will be offering help, with farmers needing workforce continuity during harvest.
NSW deputy premier Paul Toole said the additional leave for staff was a first for the state but made sense because nearly 80% of the department’s staff already lived and worked in regional areas.
“So chances are most of them know their way around a header or a chaser bin and how important this busy time of year is for regional communities,” Toole said.
“We’ve had a tough run in the regions over the past few years with prolonged drought, and COVID-19, which has significantly impacted seasonal harvest worker availability, right at a time when we need all hands on deck to get crops off.”
Adam Marshall, the state’s agriculture minister, said: “drastic times call for drastic measures”.
“There is no silver bullet to solve the COVID-exacerbated workforce shortage, but this is another step we are implementing to support industry,” Marshall said.
“I encourage all eligible staff to take advantage of this initiative, get some fresh country air in the lungs and help alleviate some of the pressures facing farmers during harvest.”
The department is encouraging staff to use local contacts or the Help Harvest NSW website to link them with where their help is most needed.
The government also says the leave will be managed to ensure no impact on the department’s services.
Dr Elizabeth Jackson, from Curtin University’s School of Management and Marketing, told The Mandarin the offer of department hands for farmers was “extraordinarily generous” but she was sceptical about delivery.
Five days of labour was unlikely to be long enough for farmers needing workers to cover a six-to-eight week harvest window, Jackson said.
“Crops have to be harvested as and when they are ready and when the weather is suitable,” she said.
“While all help is of incredible value, just having workers released from any department for a week is difficult to envisage how effective that will be.”
Jackson said she had put various calls out to the Western Australian university’s 15,000 students to help with farm work and found none took up the offer.
“I [also] tried to get retired professionals to do this and they were very reluctant to spend more than a couple of weeks away from Perth,” she said.
“[Farmers] wanted people who were trained up at the beginning of harvest to run right through the tail end of the season at least. I just really really hope that the NSW government has spoken to farmers about how to make this work.”
Jackson said occupational health and safety was another sticking point and believed the government’s choice to rely on Department of Regional NSW workers was wise.
“Farm work can be incredibly dangerous and very long hours during the harvest because of the urgency,” she said.
“It’s probably most intuitive to trial this in a department that might have these background skills. There is nothing more important than workplace health and safety.”