More than 4500 staff from the Department of Regional NSW, including Local Land Services and the NSW Department of Primary Industries, will be able to access five days' special leave to assist farmers for an expected bumper harvest season in 2021.
Deputy Premier and Minister for Regional NSW Paul Toole said special leave entitlements rolling out for the very first time will allow departmental staff to lend a much-needed hand as farmers struggle to find workers to bring in the crop.
But the Public Service Association has lodged a dispute over the plan, labelling it "a pie in the sky idea" that doesn't address systemic workplace issues in in the agricultural industry.
The "Harvest Leave" plan would allow workers to volunteer with any harvest, anywhere in the state - from harvesting blueberries in Coffs Harbour, oranges and table grapes in the Riverina and Murray, to cherries in the Central West or helping bring in a bumper grain harvest.
"Nearly 80 per cent of staff from the Department of Regional NSW already live and work in regional NSW, 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," Mr 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."
Minister for Agriculture Adam Marshall said the unprecedented move was another example of the work the government was doing to help farmers source the workforce they need for another record harvest.
"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," Mr Marshall said.
"This will be a record season and Harvest Leave provides another positive incentive to ensure this year's crops are harvested, with the flow of economic gains being delivered to local communities and the people of NSW."
But Assistant general secretary of the Public Service Association Troy Wright labelled the plan "a dumb, lazy idea that assumes public servants aren't already working".
"The people being asked to volunteer on farms are the people who, among other things, monitor our state's biosecurity, develop drought resistant crops, and scope future resource and mining opportunities. They deliver economic value to the industry and our state, but the government would rather deploy them to pick apples.
"Regional NSW has young people desperate for a job. On the same day our unemployment numbers went up the Deputy Premier offered people who already have a job another job?
"What next? The hospitality sector has a workforce crunch too - should we redeploy prison officers as baristas and get Treasury officials waiting tables?
"What about an actual regional jobs plan from this government? That develops sustainable solutions to our agricultural sector's workforce crisis and delivers safe, well-paid farm work to young people who need it?"
The PSA's dispute will raise a failure to consult with the union on the issue, particularly around safety concerns.
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