No state government has come to the table with a plan to bring foreign fruit pickers safely into Australia despite warnings of food shortages and price rises because of a severe shortage of workers.
Just 355 unemployed Australians have joined a federal government program that will see them reimbursed up to $6000 for costs incurred from relocating to take on a short-term agricultural job.
Farmers in Victoria alone estimate they need 26,000 workers within weeks to pick the summer crops that are ripening now.
The national cabinet decided on December 11 that if the states submitted health protocols outlining measures such as on-farm quarantine and restrictions on interstate travel, the federal government would approve visas for seasonal workers from the Pacific Islands. But federal Agricultural Minister David Littleproud says no plans have been submitted so far.
“It’s disappointing no state has yet written to the Commonwealth with protocols to bring more foreign workers into Australia after National Cabinet reaffirmed states wanted to maintain ownership of these protocols,” he said.
“If the states don’t understand the urgency of the situation then crops will be left in the paddock and consumers will pay more at the checkout.”
The government’s agriculture forecaster predicts the price of summer vegetables, stone fruit, apples, pears and table grapes will rise by 15-25 per cent this year because of the labour shortages. The sector relies heavily on a foreign workforce, primarily backpackers, which has dried up with Australia’s border closed during the pandemic.
There are 22,000 people across 10 Pacific nations – countries largely free of the coronavirus – who were pre-vetted in August to come work in Australia.
Industry body AusVeg says that’s the only guaranteed workforce of the scale needed, if the state governments will let them in.
“That’s our best shot at the moment so we’re throwing everything at it to try and expand a trans-Tasman bubble to the Pacific Islands,” spokesman Tyson Cattle said.
Victorian Employment Minister Jaala Pulford said on Sunday her government was working closely with the sector and keeping an open mind about the arrangements needed.
Queensland has had a trial program of allowing foreign seasonal workers to quarantine on farms, which Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews have held up as a “best in class” scheme. However, Mr Cattle says it’s brought in only about 480 workers, far short of what farmers need.
“Growers at the moment are really struggling, a lot of guys have already reduced their plantings, a lot of guys are already walking away from crops,” he said. “That effect is starting to be felt by the supermarkets and the wholesale markets and through the supply chains already.
“If we can’t get a resolution to this in the more immediate term, then that’s only going to worsen, particularly in the first three months of next year.”
Convincing Australians to take on these short-term harvest roles “has traditionally been very difficult” with various programs and enticements tried to little effect over the years.
The latest is a $17.4 million program offering job seekers in employment services programs up to $6000 to help them relocate for an agriculture job, budgeting for almost 3000 people. It started on November 1 and people can claim the money after they’ve worked for six weeks.
New Employment Department data shows that so far, 355 people have relocation agreements for short-term work.
There are six labour hire firms across 39 areas offering jobs eligible for the scheme on the government’s Job Search website. In NSW, there are 193 positions available for picking grapes, blueberries, zucchinis or watermelons and three tractor-driving jobs. In Victoria, there are 422 jobs listed including picking oranges, grapes, watermelons, broccoli, lettuce, apricots and plums, apple and pear thinning, driving tractors and packing shed roles.
By : Katina Curtis – THE AGE