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Safety scheme paying-off for backpacker labour 20 Oct 2015

Backpackers are an important source of labour for farmers across the country, in many types of enterprises. Increasingly, both they and potential employers are looking for training before they go on farm, to ensure they’re equipped with basic skills.

For Western Australian central wheatbelt farmers Peter and Shannon Waters, access to seasonal labour with practical experience in handling broadacre machinery and equipment is invaluable.

As this season’s staff settle into sheep work and grain harvesting on their 8500 hectare Bencubbin property, about three hours east of Perth, the couple says a culture of work safety is of utmost importance.

For this reason, since 2013, they have been sourcing labour for harvest, seeding and major sheep husbandry work from an innovative WA business that specialises in training backpackers in safe farm operations.

According to research conducted by the Primary Industries Health and Safety Partnership (PIHSP), almost 50,000 weeks of work in agriculture and fisheries were lost annually between 2008 and 2012 due to injury - and grain harvest can be a particularly hazardous time, as staff numbers and working hours increase.

Mr Waters says the loss of his farm’s permanent staff member and dwindling numbers of local seasonal workers in recent years left him paying high wages for sub-standard labour during WA’s mining boom.

He was initially wary of using backpackers after hearing about bad experiences from his neighbours, many of whom suffered machinery damage and other incidences when using inexperienced people.

“The thought of having to invest a lot of time, effort and energy to train new staff every few months was also a disincentive, and having our own children on the farm, we needed to know that anyone coming to work for us would operate in a safe manner at all times.”

Mr Waters says the backpackers he now sources from 2 Workin Oz - based at York, about an hour east of Perth - have received practical training in driving harvesters, tractors and chaser bins in Australian broadacre farming conditions and in using sheep handling and husbandry equipment.

“They arrive on our farm with some common sense, skills and knowledge and are more able to be safe and productive from day one,” he said.

“We have found the 2 Workin Oz-trained people have their wits about them, are keen to learn and often bring a positive cultural experience to our family.”

Mr Waters says although the 2 Workin Oz backpacker training is not formally accredited, it is an invaluable scheme for covering the basics of safe grain and sheep operations in local conditions.

2 Workin Oz owner Ley Webster, herself a mixed grain and sheep farmer, started providing practical training for backpackers after using this labour source for many years.

Ms Webster says she quickly realised there was a need for farmers to have safety-conscious, productive backpacker workers whose competency for this sector was better understood at the time of negotiating an employment agreement.

“Backpackers often come here expecting to earn ‘good’ money on farms without any real understanding of our industry, so the benefits to them of being able to do this safely, and with a higher level of understanding at their entry point, offers a great boost to their overall productivity and to the safety of everyone on the farm.

“This results in a positive and productive agricultural experience all round.”

Ms Webster says backpackers are currently the most available workforce in agriculture in WA and it was beneficial if they entered the industry – especially at really busy times – well prepared rather than out of their depth.

During the four-day 2 Workin Oz training course, backpackers live on her property and she has now ‘graduated’ several hundred workers with experience in:

  • Farm safety general knowledge, including driving on country roads and emergency services

  • Safe handling of new and older agricultural machinery

  • Driving front-end loaders/utes/vehicles with and without trailers

  • Safely changing tyres and undertaking basic repairs and maintenance 

  • Sheep handling skills in the shearing shed and yard.

“Backpackers leave with a certificate of attendance, which outlines all the practical skills they have experienced,” she said.

“I carefully assess each one during the course and am honest about the skills they have learned here - and their attitude and employ-ability skills – with the aim of carefully matching them to a farmer’s individual needs.”

Ms Webster says the WA farm sector is recognising the value of the practical training she provides to this seasonal labour force and demand is outstripping supply.

She says there have been only a few small incidences of injuries among her training course ‘graduates’ while employed on farms – mostly minor abrasions/sprains as a result of complacency.

The PIHSP is funded by the Research and Development Corporations for the meat processing, cotton, grains and livestock industries as well as the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. For more information visit www.rirdc.gov.au/PIHSP