The plan to save our crops as backpacker numbers drop
AUSTRALIANS are being encouraged to consider taking up work on farms as the number of seasonal workers and working holiday makers in the country declines.
It's one suggestion out of a raft of ideas being considered to save Australia's crops in the wake of a significant drop in foreign worker numbers.
Prior to Covid-19, there were about 160,000 seasonal workers and working holiday makers in Australia. That number has now halved to 80,000.
In a region largely reliant on agriculture, the effects are already being felt by the backpacking industry.
'Working holiday makers are leaving and leaving and leaving'
Tomato Backpackers owner James Lee says while he still has enough staff at his central Bundaberg hostel, he has been fielding calls from other hostels asking if he can spare workers to help get crops away.
"Demand is getting higher," he says, adding that the high season on local farms runs from now until Christmas.
"If there are no new people, the crops will be wasted.
"I've heard they're working longer hours because of the lack of workers."
Mr Lee said backpacker operators often shared the same concerns as farmers, because their operations went hand-in-hand, "like a needle and thread".
"Working holiday makers are leaving and leaving and leaving," he said.
"They're all going back to their country, so it's starting to get serious.
"A lot of people are also stuck in New South Wales and Melbourne, so maybe young Australians will need to go and work on farms."
Mango trial could pave the way to helping solve worker shortage
And while backpacker operators and farmers have cause for concern, the government does too.
According to the National Farmers Federation, the gross value of Australian agriculture in 2018-19 was $62.208 billion.
Late last month, commonwealth, state and territory primary industry ministers met via video link and teleconference to discuss the ongoing challenge of securing seasonal farm workers.
Ministers, including agriculture minister David Littleproud, agreed to continue to look at options to access seasonal workers from overseas while ensuring local employment options for Australians, and to co-ordinate effort at the state and federal level to help fill future workforce gaps and shortages, including for specialist workers, while also taking into account health and border considerations.
On Tuesday, a trial to help Northern Territory mango farmers was announced, with Mr Littleproud saying mango producers were facing a difficult time in the lead-up to September harvesting.
"This trial will see up to 170 workers under the Seasonal Worker Programme come to Australia to help with the 2020 harvest, with more workers to potentially follow subject to a review of the first cohort and approval for additional numbers by the NT Government," he said.
"No one wants to see fruit and vegetables wasted and this trial will help make sure that doesn't happen.
"There will be stringent conditions in place to ensure the safety of Australians and Northern Territorians - including the 14-day self-isolation requirements and the Northern Territory Chief Health Officer giving final go ahead for recruitment to commence.
"The Territory's growers, more than any others, rely on seasonal workers and working holiday makers - Covid-19 has virtually stopped that labour supply."
In April, the Federal Government announced temporary changes to visa arrangements allowing Seasonal Worker Program participants to extend their stay in Australia and continue working for up to 12 months.
Acting Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs Alan Tudge said the Federal Government was continuing to back farmers during the pandemic.
"With appropriate quarantine arrangements in place, seasonal and Pacific workers can continue to safely support Australian farmers facing critical workforce shortages," Mr Tudge said.
"Of course, farmers can only employ people under the Seasonal Worker Program and Pacific Labour Scheme if they can demonstrate that no Australian is available to do the work."
Mr Littleproud thanked the foreign workers who had stayed put in Australia, while urging Aussies to consider dusting off their farm boots to help bridge the gap.
Pitt: 'Right now, every job is a good job'
It's a sentiment shared by Hinkler MP Keith Pitt, who says there are many positions available in agriculture.
"Farmers and producers in Hinkler, as well as agricultural regions right across Australia, rely on large number of overseas workers to help them harvest their crops," he said.
"Without this workforce, often required at short notice and in large numbers, we would see crops rot on the ground and on the trees, which has a devastating impact on growers and the economy.
"Right now, every job is a good job and people need to take the work that is offered. There are career opportunities working in agriculture, not just picking, its forklift driving, machinery operation, maintenance, administration, sales and the list goes on."
Mr Pitt said any measures to help farmers find the workers they need to harvest their crops, needed to be a considered approach in the current Covid-19 environment.
"The Australian Government is working with all states and territories on a range of Covid-19 impacts on the farming sector," he said.
"The recent Northern Territory Mango trial that was announced this week was in response to a request from the Northern Territory Government and NT Farmers.
"The Federal Government is prepared to work with other states, including Queensland, that are interested in further trials."
Bundaberg Fruit and Vegetable Growers was contacted for comment but a response was not received by time of writing.
The Joint Standing Committee on Migration is currently holding an inquiry into the Working Holiday Maker program.