Wine industry uses former prisoners to fill worker gap as employers compete with mining companies

Wine industry uses former prisoners to fill worker gap as employers compete with mining companies

Wine harvest is over, but as the hills in one of the country’s premier wine-growing regions turn golden with autumn vines, there’s still work to do.

“You do not want the fruit to go too high up and we like to leave two buds,” said Brendon Fox as he pruned last season’s growth.

The Zimbabwean farmer turned viticulturist manages over 300 hectares of grapevines at Mount Barker, 360 kilometres south of Perth.

The vineyard in WA’s south is employing former prisoners.(ABC Great Southern: Andrew Chounding)

With thousands of vines to prune, one of his biggest challenges is finding enough workers.

“With the mines in competition with us, payment-wise we can’t compete,” he said.

“Locally and backpacker-wise it is very difficult at the moment.” 

Primary producers right across the country have been grappling with an ongoing labour shortage brought on by COVID restrictions — with the sector slow to recover.

Brendon Fox has been employing former inmates for six years.(ABC Great Southern: Andrew Chounding)

In Western Australia, some businesses are tapping into a supply of highly trained ex-prisoners to fill the gap.

“Most of them have chainsaw licences, excavator licences, tractor licences, exactly what you need on an agricultural property,” Mr Fox said.

“We’ve taken two prisoners every year for the last six years now.”

Pardelup Prison Farm is a minimum security prison and 6,500-acre mixed farming operation.(ABC Great Southern: Andrew Chounding)

A prison without walls 

The workers come from and are trained at the Pardelup Prison Farm, a minimum security prison and 6,500-acre mixed farming operation 27 kilometres west of Mount Barker.

The prison has no watch towers or locked cell blocks and instead corrals sheep and cows, not the inmates.

David Patterson says farm work prepares inmates for release.(ABC Great Southern: Andrew Chounding)

“It differs from other prisons in WA, it’s unfenced,” Assistant Superintendent David Patterson said.

“It ties in with education and training, providing qualifications for the men to transition back into the community, being more employable.”

The prison opened in 1972 as a fully functioning farm and has been training and outsourcing former and current inmates since 2010. 

The prison farm opened in 1972 as a fully functioning farm.(ABC Great Southern: Andrew Chounding)

Breaking the cycle

Inmates who learn on the farm said the training provided more opportunities than traditional reform programs.

“I work seven days a week, and I learn every day — I’ve done cert II in agriculture and I’ve just signed up to start cert III,” one inmate said.

“In the past, courses I’ve done have been about addressing addiction issues, which doesn’t help with anything but addiction.

Inmates believe the program will keep them out of prison.(ABC Great Southern: Andrew Chounding)

“But this gives me skills leading forward to employment, which is gainful employment.”

“That’s something I think can help break the cycle going forward.”

Inmates are taught and certified in viticulture, horticulture, cropping and animal husbandry among other specialities.

The crops and stock produced are sent to market and to other prisons across the state to feed the prison population.

Tony Ward says inmates will be in high demand.(ABC Great Southern: Andrew Chounding)

Farm manager Tony Ward said with the range of skills taught at the farm, the inmates would be in high demand.

“They are significantly advanced on where they were before they entered the system,” he said.

“The agriculture industry, as everyone will tell you, is screaming out for workers.

“We would expect that our people would be able to fill those roles admirably.”

Get our local newsletter, delivered free each Thursday

Posted , updated 

Read More

Zaļā Josta - Reklāma