Australian table grape exports surged past half a billion dollars in 2019, the industry is expanding rapidly and needs lots of workers. So put table grape jobs on the radar if you are looking for seasonal harvest work.
What is a table grape?
Put simply, a table grape is one that is grown to be eaten fresh. However some grapes, such as sultanas can also be grown to be dried, crushed for wine or consumed fresh. To further confuse things, sultanas when dried can be known as sultanas or raisins, or when cultured for fresh consumption they are known as Thompson Seedless. When crushed for wine, sultanas are usually blended in small quantities with other better known winegrape varieties and not identified on labels at all.
Grapes have been grown for thousands of years, with the first table grapes reported to be consumed around 5000BC. In Australia, grapes were brought with the First Fleet in 1788 by Captain Arthur Phillip, founder of the colony of New South Wales.
While some table grapes are based on old varieties, newer varieties such as Crimson Seedless are constantly being developed through vine breeding programs. These new varieties give consumers access to grapes with a wider range of flavours and colours, often with larger, seedless berries.
Where am I likely to get table grape work?
Table grapes prefer to grow in areas with warm, dry summers and fertile, deep, well drained soils. These conditions exist in many parts of Australia, but over 75% of table grapes are grown around the Murray River towns of Robinvale and Mildura. Other regions include Carnarvon, the Swan Valley and the South West of Western Australia, Emerald and Mundubbera in Queensland, and Ti Tree in the Northern Territory.
There are a lot of hostels in and around Mildura, but there are none in Robinvale which is the largest table grape growing area in Australia. Some farms have their own accommodation, but it will assist you to get work in this area if you have your own transport and accommodation.
Many table grape growers use labour hire contractors to find and employ workers for them. If you are offered table grape work it is highly likely you will be paid by the contractor, but on-hired to a farm.
Labour hire contractors have a poor reputation for exploitation of workers and a recent report by the FairWork Ombudsman devoted an entire chapter to the issues associated with use of labour hire in horticulture.
The good new is that labour hire contractors now need to be licensed to operate in Victoria, Queensland and South Australia. So if you are offered work in one of those states by a labour hire contractor who on-hires you to a farm, make sure they are licensed by checking one of the following websites:
Grapes grown in the northern parts of Australia specifically target niche sectors of the market and don’t employ large numbers of workers. With the geographic spread of production, fresh Australian grapes are available for six to seven months, commencing in November, peaking in February and March and finishing around May.
What are the main table grape jobs?
Table grape season starts in winter with pruning. The majority of varieties are cane-pruned requiring three passes of each vine – one to cut off the old canes, one to pull out the old canes, and the final one to wrap the new canes onto the wire. With around 1,150 vines/ha, pruning is a long, repetitive job. It is also the first of many operations that will determine the ultimate yield, size and colour of the grapes.
Once bunches have formed and are going through flowering and berry-set, the bottom of bunches are often cut off (trimmed), or bunches removed altogether (thinned), to result in a rounder shaped bunch. Growth regulators are also applied to remove some berries and encourage the remaining ones to become larger.
Apart from frequent watering, the next major operation is to apply white, plastic covers to each row to prevent sunburn and prevent bunch rot from rain events.
Once grapes are ripe the covers are removed. The bunches are then picked by hand, packed in the field, and taken to a coolroom where they are chilled.
Most table grapes are grown in areas that have extremely hot, dry summers and frosty winters. So if you manage to get a table grape job where you are working outdoors, be prepared to work for long periods in extreme hot or cold conditions.
Pruning, bunch trimming and thinning, application of covers, and picking and packing are all done by hand and almost always paid by piece-rate. Many of these jobs require some training and development, so workers who are skilled and fast can earn well above the casual hourly rate. Conversely for new workers, it can take some time to develop skills and speed, and pay may be below hourly rates.
If you gain work in the table grape industry, do some homework on who your employer is – a contractor or grower. If you are offered piece-rate work, make sure you have a signed piece-rate agreement and get pay slips every time you are paid.
If you have any concerns about your employment conditions, the FairWork Ombudsman may be able to help. Find out more at www.fairwork.gov.au.
To enquire about table grape work anywhere in Australia, contact the National Harvest Labour Information Service on 1800 062 332