FRUIT and vegetable prices will rise unless the Victorian and NSW Governments take quick action to resolve the seasonal worker crisis, according to Citrus Australia CEO Nathan Hancock.
The peak body wants Premiers Daniel Andrews Gladys Berejiklian to resolve the bureaucratic inertia stopping sensible, safe solutions on the worker shortage.
Citrus Australia has welcomes Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s comments that the states will look to increase quarantine capacity outside of the current international traveller caps in a bid to resolve the seasonal worker crisis.
“Both Victoria and NSW governments have shown little urgency in resolving these problems, falling well behind the efforts of the Federal and other state governments despite the mounting evidence being provided by industry during government consultations,” Mr Hancock said.
“Safe, effective quarantine programs from the Pacific Islands, which have almost no cases of COVID-19, can be implemented with political will.
“Unfortunately, the Chief Health Ministers and health departments have blocked every solution proposed by industry, which relate to the restrictions on international arrivals and quarantine capacity.”
Growers rely on seasonal labour, Pacific Islanders and backpackers, to pick fruit and vegetables. But they are unable to access Australia because of border lockdown. “The situation is absolutely critical, with backpacker hostels in Sunraysia and the Riverina shutting down due to their absence. Those remaining open are only 30 per cent full. These regions make up over 50 per cent of citrus production annually,” Mr Hancock said.
There are normally up to 140,000 backpackers (Working Holiday Makers) in Australia but this has declined to 50,000 with 1000 leaving each week.
There are normally 12,000 workers from the Pacific Islands with only 6000 currently in Australia and more being repatriated due to exhaustion and extended stays.
“The Federal Government is working on providing regular flights home to the Pacific Islands which will further reduce workforce; regular flights are helpful if we have an affordable quarantine pathway which brings workers in,” Mr Hancock said.
The focus on recruiting Australian workers has been unsuccessful, despite the incentives. Only 250 Australian residents have taken up the Federal Government’s relocation program, while 1000 backpackers leave the country each week.
“The federal government’s efforts to provide regular flights to and from the Pacific region is a good initiative, but it must be done in conjunction with a workable state quarantine program for international seasonal workers.
“It is imperative that the premiers show leadership to resolve the inertia caused by their Chief Health Officers and Health Departments.”
Options such as on-farm quarantine and regional quarantine hubs have been put forward by industry but have come to naught. Quarantine options offered by governments range in cost to growers at between $2000 and $8000 per person and must be done within the cap for international arrivals.
“Bureaucracy is stopping sensible, workable quarantine programs that will enable workers from the Pacific Islands to enter Australia safely,” Mr Hancock said.
“The Seasonal Worker Programme and Working Holiday Maker Programs have not been restarted in Victoria, despite the claim by Agriculture Minister Jaclyn Symes that workers would be in Victoria from December 1.
“Their absence is being felt now, with growers unable to harvest their crops, resulting in price rises for fresh fruit and vegetables across Australia.
“I cannot stress enough that we are past the critical stage and that genuine leadership needs to be shown. Fruit and vegetable shortages will only get worse, leading to significant price rises for average Australian families
“The best case scenario, if we had an approved quarantine pathway today, would mean the first workers wouldn’t arrive until the beginning of February and they’ll be in their hundreds when we’ll need them in their thousands,” Mr Hancock said.
Mr Hancock welcomed Queensland Agriculture Minister Mark Furner’s announcement that the on-farm quarantine pilot will continue until March 2021.
“The Queensland government lead the way with this pilot, however industry is concerned that the level of bureaucracy involved has made the pilot unworkable for some smaller employers and in the end could be too taxing for the individuals involved.
“We hope that the pilot will continue to evolve in a way that provides positive outcomes for the workers and their employers. However, my fear is that the process has become more important than the outcome.”