Farmers are struggling to fill 26,000 jobs despite many would-be workers

Long waitlists, confusing coronavirus rules and tough border restrictions are making it difficult for temporary visa holders to fill much-needed fruit-picking jobs.

This is despite Australian fruit and vegetable farmers requiring an extra 26,000 workers to harvest their crops in summer, according to research from consultancy firm Ernst & Young.

The report, commissioned by industry group Hort Innovation, identified major workforce gaps in the horticulture industry, which is typically reliant on overseas workers.

To encourage foreigners to fill these jobs, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Tuesday he will offer visa extensions to backpackers, Pacific Islanders and seasonal workers, plus bonuses for welfare recipients as an incentive to pick fruit.

The age limit of 30 on the working holidaymaker visa will also be scrapped to enable those aged 31 and older to continue working in agriculture.

JobSeeker and Youth Allowance recipients would be able to earn up to $300 per fortnight from a farmer before welfare payments are reduced.

When COVID makes it complicated

Under the rules, travellers can stay in Australia for an extra year if they work on farms with one employer for more than six months.

But Chris Wavell, 28, a temporary visa holder from the United Kingdom, told The New Daily this was easier said than done.

“It’s hard to line up the jobs because there’s no security,” he said, adding the economic strain caused by the coronavirus meant some farmers were hesitant to lock in costly long-term contracts.

“And the visa says you need to be with the same employer the whole time, which is pretty problematic if it’s not arranged through a labour-hire firm as many of the jobs are only for weeks or months at a time.”

Temporary visa holder Chris Wavell (left) said fruit-picking jobs were hard to secure from Melbourne during the pandemic. Photo: Chris Wavell

Mr Wavell, who is based in Melbourne, said he has emailed dozens of applications to farmers and posted on several Facebook groups linking workers with jobs to no avail.

Living in Australia’s worst-hit city by the coronavirus hasn’t helped.

“It’s quite difficult to get out to the other farms interstate because you’re stuck in Melbourne,” he said.

“Plus they want someone who is in their state right now, partly because of quarantine and also because they don’t want to waste their time on anyone who isn’t reliable.”

Backpackers ripe for working

Since our international borders were sealed in March, many of the foreign workers who would normally pick our fruit and vegetables have been banned from entering the country.

Of those who were already in Australia on working holidaymaker visas, nearly 50,000 left when the coronavirus pandemic took hold, federal data shows.

Fortunately, plenty of them stayed.

Some 85,691 working holidaymakers were registered in Australia in June, according to federal data.

And after losing their jobs in the pandemic – and receiving no government support – many of them are itching to get to work.

On Wednesday, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said he was working closely with farmers on new measures before next week’s federal budget.

“Farmers don’t have the luxury of sitting around waiting for workers to turn up, and we don’t want fruit rotting on the vine or crops left in the field,” he told AAP.

Fear of exploitation

Although backpackers make up an important part of Australia’s fruit-picking workforce, many of the workers are also international students or people on bridging visas desperate for money.

“There’s an awful lot of exploitation that goes on,” said Dr Katharine Betts, adjunct associate professor of sociology at Swinburne University.

“Labor market agents are hiring people on bridging visas, and farming them out to farmers where they’re paid miserable rates.

“It’s pretty awful, and it’s one reason why locals don’t want to do the work. The conditions are dreadful.”

If the federal government wanted to attract locals to become fruit pickers, Dr Betts said the living conditions would need to improve.

“If that means the price of fruit and vegetables goes up, well, we’re meant to live in a civilised country and that’s the price we have to pay,” she said.

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