DESPITE the best efforts of the Federal Government to address the seasonal worker shortages, including providing more flexibility to encourage temporary visa holders to support Australian farmers struggling to find workers during COVID-19, growers in the Sunraysia region are already experiencing summer labour shortages.

The Federal Government had attempted to implement a plan to allow up to 20,000 Pacific Islanders to enter Australia to work on farms, but with the issues with state borders closing and different rules applying across the country that seems to have been put into quarantine for the time being.

Industry heads including Sunraysia Table Grape Growers Association president Dominic Sergi said that there are a lot of growers who are struggling to find workers at the moment. “Hopefully it will get better once the harvest gets under way and some of the other crops, like the cherries and blueberries, have finished,” Mr Sergi said.

“But the reality is, there are a lot of people struggling to find labour at the moment. Normally the industry relies on backpackers to fill the harvest jobs, but with the COVID pandemic preventing international travellers from entering Australia, they’re not here this season.”

Mr Sergi said that in regard to the harvest on his own property, he would normally recruit workers directly and also through labour hire contractors.

“There are no backpackers to speak of here whatsoever at the moment − very little anyway,” he said. “Normally there would be hundreds available once the harvest commenced. Just what growers will do to survive is the real question.

“We will all find out together I guess. But if people can’t get around their crops, there is only one thing that is going to happen – they are going to rot − that’s it.”

Like Mr Sergi, Dried Fruits Australia chairman and Pomona grower Mark King said that the labour shortages will hit the sector hard.

“We won’t commence harvesting until first or second week of February and by the third week we are usually at our maximum capacity. I guess by then time will tell if we can get the labour we need. I hear that there are a few more backpackers starting to come into the region and hopefully there will be some more around.

“We have been telling our growers to be proactive in their search for labour and to get out there and try to organise themselves and find workers where they can and not to wait around until the last minute and think that you will be able to get them. Dried fruit is not as labour intensive as table grapes and so we are fortunate to some degree.

“On our property which has 200 hundred acres of dried fruit we would usually employ eight backpackers for around two months. I have already been talking to a contractor to see what can be organised and arranged, but it will be an issue and will depend on what changes over the next month.”

Mr King said that he and representatives from the table grape and summer fruit industry had met with the Agriculture Minister late last year to discuss the labour shortage issue

“We met with Mr Littleproud just before Christmas and we pointed this out but as he said that wasn’t a lot that could be done while the situation with COVID continues.As bad as it is and as much as we all want people to be working for us but everybody sees the big picture and understands that you can’t open up the international travel to bring back packers in here when a lot of them come from the countries that have the highest rate of infection in the world.”

Mr King also said it was disappointing that the plan to bring workers in from the Pacific Islands had failed to be successfully implemented.

“The Minister had signed off on that there were 20,000 visas that were ready to go but it was up to the states to decide if they were going to participate in the scheme.

“Because the states were too busy ‘blueing’ with themselves to say we will do this or we will do that. Queensland tried and did a little bit but no workers have been able to come to Victoria.”

Member for Mallee Anne Webster was critical of the Victorian State Government’s approach to the issue.

“Victoria at this point in time hasn’t brought in any workers, which is incredibly disappointing compared to Queensland who have brought in 458, New South Wales, the Northern Territory and Tasmania have also allowed workers in,” Dr Webster said.

“Overall the numbers aren’t significant when we are talking about the need for more than 20,000 people.

“Victoria has given us no indication at all that they are working through the quarantine issues. We want the management and control of quarantine to be state by state and yet we are finding Victoria to be extraordinarily slow in actually working out the process to manage the risk- it’s all too difficult it would seem.

“I have growers contacting me who are now using whatever labour resources they can find − friends and family − basically anyone who walks past their property − they are keen to give a job to, because they don’t have workers.”