Peter Ceccato, Managing Director of the Super Seasons Orchard in New South Wales, Riverina describes his days as ‘heartbreaking’, walking through the rows of his orchard which is carpeted with quality fruit rotting on the ground because he can’t find workers to pick the trees.
The award wage for picking fruit is $26.73 an hour, but Mr. Ceccato pays his workers $29. Even when he was offering $45 an hour, he couldn’t find staff.
Australia is plagued by a chronic shortage of workers, and it’s not just affecting orchards where two years of COVID-19 restrictions have prevented overseas workers from coming to Australia.
Some of the hardest hit sectors are those critical to the nation’s health and future, such as doctors, nurses, teachers and engineers, and early childhood care and education professionals ( ECEA).
When fully qualified early childhood educators are paid less per hour than casual fruit pickers, and the fruit rots on the orchard floor, it sounds the alarm. Currently, according to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics numbers, there are 470,900 unfilled jobs across the countryand without adequate ECEC services, parents cannot fulfill them.
Vacancies jumped 40% in 12 months. The number of shortage occupations nearly doubled in 2022 alone.
The news program Four Corners recently chose the NSW town of Griffith in the NSW Riverina to illustrate the impact of these figures on the ground. The city of around 27,000 people is a hub for agriculture, industry and services, with a large hospital and schools. His difficulties illustrate how shortages in one sector affect the community.
Using the ECEC as an example, the program noted that in a local service, having just one additional staff member would open up 85 additional licensed places over a week, freeing up parents to fill the huge number of vacancies in the city. . At the hospital alone, there are 43 vacancies.
Work vehicles are off the road due to delays at a local mechanic. Essential agricultural equipment is not being built due to a shortage of welders. At the fire station, there is a small group of on-call firefighters, all of whom have other jobs. Four firefighters are needed to respond to any reported incident, which is proving difficult with many businesses and city departments operating with limited resources.
Ultimately, the Four Corners report concludes, the cost of labor shortages can be measured not only in missed deadlines and long delays, but also in the burnout and distress of those who hold the fort.
At the Super Seasons orchard, the rows of wasted food weigh heavily on Peter Ceccato.
“It’s just really hard to wake up in the morning and watch this happen again, knowing it can be fixed,” he said. “We need a better system.”
To read the original cover of this story, as produced by Four Corners, please see here.